Five on five: Vanderbilt makes NCAA tournament, to face Northwestern

Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis during the Commodores' loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals March 11, 2016 at Bridgestone Arena.

It took until the final quarter of the bracket of CBS’s NCAA tournament selection show, but Vanderbilt celebrated yesterday as it was selected to play in its second straight NCAA tournament.

The ninth-seeded Commodores will square off against the eighth-seeded Northwestern Wildcats on Thursday in Salt Lake City at approximately 3:30 p.m. CT. Is the seed surprising? Will the ‘Dores make a magical run through March Madness? Five Hustler staff writers answer these questions and more.

1. What are your thoughts on Vanderbilt’s seed and the fact that it made the tournament? Were you surprised by anything?

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: I thought Vanderbilt would be a No. 10 seed, but I wasn’t shocked given the NCAA Selection Committee’s tendency to (in my opinion) overvalue quality wins and strength of schedule. The ‘Dores deserved to make the tournament based on their tremendous wins, performance away from home, strength of schedule and advanced metric numbers. But it’s ridiculous to seed any 19-15 team over a 30-4 Wichita State squad with no bad losses and elite computer numbers that is objectively a better team. Losses matter in real life, but apparently they don’t all matter to the committee. That isn’t right.

Cutler Klein, Assistant Sports Editor: I thought Vanderbilt’s seeding was certainly fair, and after its run in the SEC tournament, I was not shocked at all that they made it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I thought its bubble was about to burst. However, this team really turned it around, and with some consistent winning down the stretch, it was close to a shoe-in for the tournament. A No. 9 seed is around where I thought they would be. If they hadn’t beaten Florida on Friday, I think they would have been headed back to Dayton for the First Four.

Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief: We’ve known since the victory over Texas A&M that Vanderbilt was essentially guaranteed a spot in the tournament. But I’m definitely a bit surprised that the selection committee gave Vanderbilt that No. 9 seed, considering some of the more reputable bracketologists projected them at No. 10. Is that a significant difference? Hardly, but it shows that Vanderbilt’s strength of schedule and signature wins, including a season sweep of Florida, really meant a lot.

Torben Ginsberg, sports reporter: Given how the prominent bracketologists had been projecting the ‘Dores over recent weeks, a No. 9seed seems like an appropriate place. When considering the season itself, however, a it’s rather generous. A team with 15 losses has never made the tournament until this year’s ‘Dores team. For them to make history this way while playing in a relatively weak SEC and with some glaring losses on their resume is surprising. Some strong wins — most notably the three over Florida — made them deserving of a spot in the Dance, but I was expecting a No. 11 seed.

Max Schneider, sports reporter: Vanderbilt proved with two wins over Florida at the tail end of the season that it belongs in the field, so to see it there was no surprise. They figured to be about a No. 11 seed following a blowout loss to Arkansas, but as the bracket started to unfold, it became more and more clear that they were going to get respect. The committee weighed quality wins and strength of schedule heavily, and Vanderbilt benefited tremendously from that assessment. It does beg the question of whether or not a No. 11 seed would have been better, however, given the lack of strength of the No. 3 seeds.

2. How much does Commodores’ blowout loss against Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals concern you going forward?

Weinstein: It’s not concerning. Vanderbilt was worn down from having played each of the two days before, and now it has four days off. It’s highly unlikely the ‘Dores will shoot the ball so poorly against Northwestern; single-game jump-shooting isn’t so easy to control anyways, so there’s no point in worrying about that. I don’t take much from that Arkansas game.

Klein: It is a little concerning, but I’m not hitting the panic button quite yet. The Commodores had just played two slugfests in two days and were physically drained. On top of that, they’ve been playing must-win, emotional basketball games each week for the past month. That’s draining in and of itself, so that partially led to their demise. With a few days before their game on Thursday, they should get the rest they need to not repeat that Arkansas performance.

Hamburger: There are two areas of concern from this game, although they are both related and perhaps not a real worry right now. For one, it seemed clear that fatigue played a role in the Arkansas game. The Commodore bench played a bit more than usual, including 11 minutes from Djery Baptiste and 19  from Payton Willis, while Luke Kornet played just 26 minutes (he averaged 31.4 minutes per game during the season). Although that was their third game in as many days, one has to wonder how well this team could keep up if they are to make a deep run.

The other issue that was evident was the team’s inability to get the ball into the hoop like they usually do. It’s fine that they didn’t shoot well on Saturday (30.4 percent overall and 25.8 percent from three), but one game like that in the tournament and they are done. On the season, Vanderbilt has shot 43.1 percent overall and 37.7 percent from beyond the arc. They’ll need numbers like that, if not better, to really have a chance to get deep into the tournament. I don’t expect an Arkansas-type game though against Northwestern, given the four days of rest they’ll have to recover until Thursday.

Ginsberg: Not very concerning. In general, I am not one to put too much stock into conference tournaments. Every year, there are teams that make runs in their conference tourneys, only to get bounced in the opening weekend of the Dance. The same is true the other way around. I am more encouraged by the fact that Vanderbilt made it to the semifinals than I am concerned about a 14-point loss.

Schneider: It doesn’t concern me very much at all. It’s no secret that this team lives and dies by the three, and when it isn’t hitting its shots, it can’t expect to beat superior teams.  Shots are going to have to fall against Northwestern to move into the Round of 32. Having said that, their performance can also be chalked up to tired legs, as playing three games in three days is something that the Commodores aren’t used to. Luke Kornet played 44 minutes and Joe Toye played 38 in Vanderbilt’s overtime win over Florida, so it was clearly going to be a tough turnaround to come play their best basketball 18 hours later.

3. How do you like the draw overall, taking into account potential future opponents, location, etc.?

Weinstein: It’s a solid draw. The location isn’t optimal, but I’m not sure Vanderbilt would have a lot of fans at the game no matter the location, as the closest sites to Nashville all are hosting teams with massive, passionate fan bases. Northwestern is the ideal first-round matchup; the Wildcats are 5-7 since the beginning of February, and two of those wins came over Big Ten cellar-dweller Rutgers. The ‘Cats rate lower than Vanderbilt in Ken Pomeroy’s predictive ratings, too. Gonzaga, however, is probably one of the top three or four teams in the country. That’s a difficult potential second-round game.

Klein: I think this is a pretty good draw. Northwestern is an inexperienced team, as this is its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. They’ll play in Salt Lake City, a location that doesn’t particularly benefit either team. Vanderbilt will also potentially match up with Gonzaga in the second round, the lowest-ranked No. 1 seed. That presents an advantage for Vanderbilt if it can get past Northwestern.

Also, history has the chance to repeat itself this season. It’s a slim chance, but it’s a chance. Gonzaga takes on the 16th-seeded South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the first round. Back in 2015, Vanderbilt was the fifth seed in the NIT, the equivalent of the No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won their first game, and in addition, the number one seed in that bracket, Colorado State, fell to the No. 8 seed, setting up a favorable home matchup for Vanderbilt in the second round.

Who was that NIT eighth seed back in 2015? None other than the South Dakota State Jackrabbits.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

Hamburger: I think the draw is favorable for the first round, as Vanderbilt should have the edge against the higher-seeded Wildcats. However, a second-round matchup against Gonzaga is clearly a tough obstacle. The Bulldogs know how to win: They have made the tournament every year since 1999, including two straight trips to the Sweet 16. They lost just one game this year, a stunner against BYU. Their schedule wasn’t very tough, especially compared to Vanderbilt’s, but they went 6-0 against the RPI top 25. That’s about as far as I’ll look for now, but Northwestern is a great matchup for the Commodores, especially as their team lacks any tournament experience.

Ginsberg: The location means little for the first round, as Salt Lake City is essentially a neutral location between Vanderbilt and Northwestern. I also definitely like the Commodores’ chances in the matchup with the Wildcats. Northwestern was a good story this year but is definitely a team that Vandy can beat. The second-round matchup is a whole different story.

Schneider: The first round draw is a good one for Vanderbilt. Northwestern is a very beatable opponent that lacks experience and represents a weak Big Ten conference.  Vanderbilt might actually end up being favored in this game, which wasn’t likely coming into Selection Sunday. This matchup could feel like a road game to Vanderbilt though.  Northwestern’s fan base figures to travel well for the team’s first ever tournament game, whereas the Vanderbilt contingent won’t likely flock to Salt Lake City. Looking ahead, Gonzaga posts an extremely difficult second-round matchup. While it is probably the most desirable opponent on the 1-line, the Zags shoot the three at a higher clip than Vanderbilt and have the size to dominate in the post.

4. What’s the one aspect of the matchup with Northwestern that most intrigues you?

Weinstein: Northwestern doesn’t have the most impressive offensive numbers, and Vanderbilt’s defense has improved dramatically over the past few weeks. The Wildcats are around 200th nationally in both two-point and three-point percentage shooting. It’s shocking that we’re here in March talking about Vanderbilt’s defense in such a positive way, but the ‘Dores have a chance to dominate on that end of the floor Thursday.

Klein: I’m intrigued by the battle in the paint for Vanderbilt. While it’s been a three-point team all season, it could actually win this game via Luke Kornet. Northwestern’s tallest player is freshman center Barret Benson, standing at 6’10”. Kornet is 7’1” and should be able to have his way with the Wildcats down low. Vanderbilt will win this game with three-pointers but could get a boost if Kornet is dominant on the blocks.

Hamburger: The rebound matchup will be something to look at, especially between centers Luke Kornet and Dererk Pardon. Just from the simple observation, Kornet should hold an obvious advantage: At 7’1”, he has five inches over the 6’8” Pardon. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as Pardon averaged 8.0 rebounds per game, while Kornet averaged only 6.2.

Pardon put up a monster 22-rebound game against Nebraska this season, as he plays more of a traditional center role. He didn’t take any threes all season, while Kornet splits time in the pain and outside the arc. This matchup could force Kornet into an uncomfortable spot, keeping him inside longer, although his length should help him out. However, he seems ready to take on the challenge, noting how often he has had to adjust to different types of centers during the regular season.

“I’m pretty sure he’s a good offensive rebounder so that’s something you always have to be aware of,” Kornet said about Pardon during the Sunday night press conference. ”… It’ll present its own challenge, but it’s something I’ll try to prepare for.”

Ginsberg: Both teams are slow and deliberate on offense, with each scoring just 13 percent of their points in transition, per Synergy Sports Technology. This should actually play into the Commodores’ hands, given that they have struggled against fast and athletic defenses this season. Northwestern’s defense is stingy — largely a result of their slow pace — but not athletic enough to overwhelm Vanderbilt.

Schneider: Vanderbilt might be the superior three-point shooting team in this contest, but how the Commodores guard against the three is what to watch for come Thursday. Northwestern doesn’t shoot the three well as a team, and Vic Law has been its only consistent shooter all season. If Vanderbilt can lock up Law on the perimeter, it can make this game one-dimensional, forcing Northwestern to fight for points inside. It’s a game plan that worked to perfection against Texas A&M, and if Bryce Drew employs a similar one against the Wildcats, his team will have every opportunity to win this game.

5. How far will Vanderbilt go?

Weinstein: I’m far from a Vanderbilt optimist — I predicted a thrashing at the hands of Wichita State a year ago. But this year, I see things differently. The Commodores are playing great basketball, and Northwestern has regressed over the past month-and-a-half. I’ll take Vanderbilt to win in a blowout on Thursday before losing a relatively competitive game to Gonzaga on Saturday.

Klein: I think Vanderbilt should get past Northwestern and has a legitimate chance at the Sweet 16. I think Gonzaga will be too strong in the end, but a second-round finish for the Commodores this season is nothing to scoff at.

Hamburger: I think Vanderbilt takes down Northwestern and makes a decent effort against Gonzaga, but the road will end there. I see them coming out strong against Northwestern and winning comfortably by leading throughout. However, it’s tough to take down a No. 1 seed anytime, and it would really take an all-time great game to take down Gonzaga.

Ginsberg: The second round, no further. I believe that the ‘Dores matchup very well with Northwestern and will win that first game. After that, however, they run into No. 1 seed Gonzaga. While some are critical of the Bulldogs given their soft schedule, they are far and away a better team than Vanderbilt on both ends of the floor and have a real shot at making a Final Four run this year. It is fun to dream, but running into a 32-1 team in the second round will keep Vanderbilt from dancing past opening weekend.

Schneider: The popular answer here is probably that the Commodores will advance to the Round of 32, but that’s as far as they’ll go. I’m probably going heart over head here with Vanderbilt over Northwestern, since the Wildcats come into this tournament hungry under head coach Chris Collins, but Vanderbilt has the tools to get the job done. Vandy has the ability to outshoot Northwestern, and if it can do that and play lockdown defense, the Round of 32 is very feasible.  A Sweet 16 berth would require a victory against Gonzaga, which might be too much to ask, however.

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