Five thoughts: Vanderbilt advances to SEC quarterfinals

Facing a potential must-win game for its NCAA tournament hopes, Vanderbilt entered Thursday’s game against Texas A&M needing to do something no one on the team had accomplished before: win an SEC tournament game.

The Commodores did that and more, as Joe Toye’s career-high 18 points helped Vanderbilt put a 66-41 beatdown on the Aggies. In the process, head coach Bryce Drew’s squad likely passed the selection committee’s so-called “eye test” and got key players rest, as well.

Here are five takeaways from the Commodores’ SEC tournament second-round victory.

Toye leads the way

The first half was a complete rock fight, as neither team could buy a bucket. Toye was no exception, as he launched two early three-pointers from the right wing that missed badly. After those two misses, he didn’t take another shot from the field until the second half.

At that point, Toye caught fire. His 5-for-6 three-point shooting after halftime helped him to a new career high, and he chipped in a highlight play on a beautiful eurostep layup on the fastbreak to push Vanderbilt’s lead to 25 with five minutes left. While Toye didn’t get a rebound in 24 minutes and added only one assist, he committed just one turnover and was a key contributor to the Commodores’ stifling defense.

“Riley [LaChance], I thought, really kept us in with some big threes in the first half, and Joe was extraordinary that second half,” Drew said. “I think when he started to make some threes, it gave our team a lot of confidence and a lot more guys started to make shots.”

Early defense keeps ‘Dores in the game

Vanderbilt’s offense was horrendous to start the game, as the ‘Dores missed shot after shot for what seemed like ages. Ten minutes into the game, the Commodores had only managed seven points — and yet they led 7-4. The ever-improving Commodore defense kept the team in the game, as Vanderbilt forced A&M’s suspect backcourt to beat it and sent aggressive double teams at the Aggies’ big men in the post.

Aside from an early dunk from Tyler Davis, the strategy worked. Vanderbilt held Texas A&M scoreless for a whopping 10 minutes and 18 seconds for one stretch in the first half, in large part due to Aggie turnovers. A&M turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, despite the fact that the Commodores rank toward the bottom of Division I in the percent of possessions on which they force turnovers. In many games, scoring 23 first-half points results in a big deficit. But instead, Vanderbilt held a three-point advantage even after an underwhelming first period.

“The guys were playing really hard,” LaChance said. “… We double-teamed in the post. Our guys did a good job of shutting those guys down. We were keeping them off the offensive glass.”

Roberson wins key matchup

Due to Texas A&M’s imposing size and Vanderbilt’s lack thereof, Commodore power forwardJeff Roberson has been a key player in each of the teams’ three matchups this year. Roberson had to match up with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Robert Williams, a 6’9”, 237-pound big man likely to be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Roberson, a 6’6”, 224-pounder who started his career playing on the wing, held strong in the post and helped keep Williams to nine points in 36 minutes.

He didn’t do much scoring, but Roberson’s ability to keep Williams off the glass (the freshman grabbed only three offensive rebounds) helped Vanderbilt choke off the Aggies’ offense, consistently limiting A&M to only one shot. Texas A&M ranks as the 10th-best offensive rebounding team by percentage nationally, according to KenPom.com, and Williams ranks 41st on an individual basis. Lots of variables affect single-game plus-minus, but Roberson’s plus-27 tied for a Vanderbilt high; Williams was minus-21.

“Not only is [Williams] tough to guard, he gets it within five feet, he’s going to dunk it,” Drew said. “… His five offensive rebounds helped change the game for us offensively. We were doing a lot of one-and-dones in the first half. He started to get in there and gave our guys some aggressiveness to drive off the rebounds and get some scores, which gave us some energy.”

No harm, no foul

Luke with no foul trouble, Roberson barely at end of 1H

Vanderbilt’s lack of depth is well-chronicled. In close games, Drew often only gives six players more than a few minutes. It’s extremely important that the Commodores avoid foul trouble, and they did just that Thursday night. Luke Kornet finished the game with only two fouls, neither of which came in the first half. In fact, the ‘Dores committed just 11 fouls as a team, an incredibly low number given the high number of foul calls made these days in most college games. The only Commodore to experience foul trouble was Roberson, and he only had to sit for about 30 seconds toward the end of the first half.

Vanderbilt’s ability to successfully defend without fouling not only allowed to keep its best players on the court, but it kept the Aggies off the free-throw line too. It’s not every day that a team holds its opponent 41 points playing clean, foul-free defense.

“We’re not very deep with nine players, so getting in foul trouble is a concern,” Drew said. “When Jeff picked up his second one in the first half, that was definitely a concern, going through the game and obviously other guys with fouls because we don’t have as much depth as other teams.”

Top-100 wins

The NCAA tournament selection committee can be unpredictable. Even expert consensus misses on at least one team on the bubble nearly every year. But by adding its 10th RPI top-100 win of the season, Vanderbilt seems to be in good shape to make its second straight appearance in the Big Dance.

Generally, any surprise teams relegated to the NIT feature weak schedule numbers, particularly for non-conference games. Vanderbilt’s schedule, however, ranks in the top five for both non-conference games and overall. The Commodores are now a respectable 7-9 away from home, and five of those seven came against top-100 teams. The committee has placed extremely high value on top-50 wins the past few years, and Vanderbilt has five of those, too. Its potential 15 losses will be a problem, but the positives of the Commodores’ profile seem to outweigh the negatives relative to other bubble team.

“I would like to think that we’re in [the NCAA tournament],” Drew said. “… You know, I’m really proud of these guys the last couple of weeks. There was even talk about the bubble and things like that. They’ve really played some of their best being under some of these conditions.”

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