Although Vanderbilt Star Billy McCaffrey hasn't exactly become a country-music freak while living in Nashville the last two years, he will tell you that he likes some country songs and that he has been to the Grand Ole Opry. He might even agree that the title of the nation's No. 1 country album, Some Gave All, by another Billy—Billy Ray Cyrus—is as good a way as any to describe how the smallest school (9,183 students) in the 12-team SEC could beat traditional giants Kentucky, Arkansas and LSU en route to its first outright regular-season title since 1965. The Commodores aren't especially big or athletic, but they play well together and usually don't beat themselves.
As a result of their 77-73 victory over South Carolina last Saturday in Columbia, the guys from Music City finished the regular season with a 25-4 record (the most wins in Vanderbilt history) and earned the No. 1 seed in this week's SEC tournament, in Lexington, Ky. Uncharacteristically, the Commodores almost blew a 23-point lead against the Gamecocks but converted seven of 10 free throws in the final minute to avoid the upset. Even McCaffrey, who has become the Commodores' best player and a solid All-America candidate in his first season after transferring from Duke, had an off day. He scored a team-high 19 points but missed three of four foul shots down the stretch.
No matter how the Commodores fare this week in Lexington, they're a lock to be a high seed in the NCAA tournament, which is especially meaningful to McCaffrey. The last time he played in an NCAA tournament game, he came off the bench to score 16 points and help Duke beat Kansas for the 1991 national championship. Two weeks later McCaffrey walked into coach Mike Krzyzewski's office and announced that he was transferring. Even Bobby Hurley, McCaffrey's roommate, was shocked. What was wrong? Only Hurley and Christian Laettner had gotten more playing time with the Blue Devils that season. Why would a guy walk away from a program that had become college basketball's blue heaven?
"It's hard for people to understand," says McCaffrey, "so they've tried to create reasons. It was just a matter of moving into a role that I feel more comfortable with. Going to two Final Fours [the Blue Devils were runners-up to UNLV when he was a freshman] and winning the national championship made it easier to leave instead of harder."
Despite McCaffrey's steadfast claims that he enjoyed his time at Duke, the rumor mill has ground out all sorts of reasons for his transfer—everything from parental pressure to a distaste for playing with Laettner. But to McCaffrey it was obvious that he would never dislodge Hurley from the point-guard role on the team and that he wouldn't beat out Thomas Hill for the off-guard spot, mainly because Hill is a better defensive player. That meant the 6'4" McCaffrey would continue to be the sixth man, his playing time dependent on game situations. In the '91 Final Four, for example, he got 14 minutes against UNLV in the semifinals and 26 against Kansas in the title game.
McCaffrey picked Vanderbilt because he wanted a university with the same high academic standards as Duke's. In addition, he liked Commodore coach Eddie Fogler, who had tried to recruit him when McCaffrey was a senior at Central Catholic High in Allentown, Pa., where he had been the 1988-89 Pennsylvania Player of the Year. "When Bill called," says Fogler, "I was quick to take it, even though I think it was collect."
Fogler replaced C.M. Newton at Vanderbilt in March 1989. Before that, after ending his playing career at North Carolina in 1970, Fogler had served for 16 years on Dean Smith's Tar Heel staff and three years as coach at Wichita State. When he accepted the Vandy job, he knew he was taking over a program that had been at a disadvantage in the SEC because its academic standards are higher than those of the other schools in the league. Still, he saw no reason that Vandy couldn't become the Duke of the SEC.
He got a break when 6'5" forward Bruce Elder, a good shooter and defensive player, decided to transfer from Davidson after the 1988-89 season. Then Fogler lucked into a sturdy big man when 6'9" center Chris Lawson decided to leave Indiana in May 1991 after two unhappy seasons under Bob Knight. But Fogler's biggest pickup of all was McCaffrey.
While sitting out last year, McCaffrey worked to improve his strength, adding 20 pounds to take his weight to 181 pounds and improving his bench press from a puny 130 pounds to about 190. "I think the year off really helped me," says McCaffrey. "It gave me a chance to work on everything in my game, in addition to concentrating on school." An economics major, McCaffrey will get his degree in May but will play next season as a graduate student.
Because Fogler believes in a team concept as opposed to a star system—what else would you expect from a Dean Smith disciple?—the Commodores don't run a lot of plays for McCaffrey, which is fine because one of McCaffrey's strengths is the ability to create his own shots. At week's end he was scoring 20.4 points per game and, perhaps more impressive, was making 52.2% of his three-point attempts. "He's a young man who can score off the dribble or standing still," Fogler says. "He also can make the difficult shot. You look at some of his shots and say, 'I don't know,' but then he makes them."
Another McCaffrey fan is Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. After watching him score 22 points and dish out a school-record 14 assists to lead the Commodores to a 101-86 upset of his then top-ranked Wildcats on Jan. 13, Pitino suggested that McCaffrey should be a candidate for Player of the Year—not just in the SEC but in the nation.
"That's a great compliment," says McCaffrey, who may be having at least as good a season for Vanderbilt as Hurley is having for Duke, "but I try to keep things in perspective. There are a lot of great players nobody has ever heard of."
Although McCaffrey is weary of being asked why he left Durham, he says he cherishes his Duke memories. As a reminder, he keeps one of his two Final Four rings in his dorm room. Have any of his teammates asked to have a look at it? "No," says McCaffrey with a smile. "I think they're a lot more interested in getting one for themselves."