Last year, Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team faced what was arguably the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country. They finished the 2016-17 season with an overall record of 19-16 and a conference record of 10-8 that put them in a three-way tie with Alabama and Ole Miss for third place in the SEC.
After beating Texas A&M and Florida in the SEC Tournament, they lost a semifinal game to Arkansas, and they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Northwestern after receiving an at-large invitation. They were the first team ever to receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament with more than 15 losses.
Following up a season in which they faced the toughest schedule in the country, Vanderbilt is playing many of the same formidable teams it faced last year, both inside and outside of the SEC.
In the SEC, Vanderbilt’s toughest opponents will most likely be those that are currently nationally ranked: Kentucky (#5), Florida (#8), and Texas A&M (#25). The Commodores will play Kentucky and Florida twice each and Texas A&M once near the end of the season. Their most challenging non-conference game will likely be their match against University of Southern California (#10).
All of these matches are definitely games to watch, and here is the inside scoop on each of these four impressive opponents:
Kentucky (January 13 at Vanderbilt, January 30 at Kentucky)
Kentucky has been in the top seven teams on the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll for the past seven years, the longest streak in Division One, and holds the all-time record for number of seasons in the top five at 50. They gained a grand total of eight talented freshmen this year, although freshman shooting guard Jemarl Baker will not play for the first three months of the season due to injury.
Florida (December 30 at Florida, February 17 at Vanderbilt)
Florida, on the other hand, has made it into the top 10 in the AP rankings, just three places below Kentucky, but ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Gators a greater chance of winning the NCAA Tournament than the Wildcats. However, Florida has also lost four of its star defensive players, who helped the team achieve their Elite Eight run last season, so their defense could potentially be spotty this year, depending on how well the freshman recruits step their game up.
Texas A&M (February 24 at Vanderbilt)
Texas A&M hovered in the middle of the pack in the SEC last year, but the Aggies are clearly going for a season even better than their 2015-16 one, in which they finished with a fantastic 28-9 record, went to the SEC Tournament championship game (although they lost to Kentucky), and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament before losing to the #7 ranked Oklahoma. This year’s AP appearance is the Aggies’ first since 2011.
USC (November 19 at Vanderbilt)
USC’s AP ranking comes as a bit of a surprise after over forty years of a top ten preseason ranking drought; their last appearance in the AP poll was in the 2008-09 season. The Trojans are still reeling, however, from accusations of corruption made against one of their assistant coaches in September, so it will be interesting to see how–or if–this misadventure affects their season. All of USC’s five talented starters from last season are returning this year, and they picked up Derryck Thornton from the #1 ranked Duke.
To sum up, Vanderbilt will have no shortage of interesting games this season, as they will play several nationally ranked teams and other fearsome opponents, including Middle Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. Almost every game the Commodores play will be worth watching, but their matches against their toughest opponents will be the most interesting to see.