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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC tournament preview: Can Vanderbilt take home the crown?

Ziyi Liu
Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee 67-65 in a heartbreaker in the Second Round of the 2016 SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN.

For the third year in a row, the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville will have postseason implications for Vanderbilt.

At 17-14 overall but with one of the country’s strongest schedules and a bevy of good wins, the Commodores are squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. It’s possible that a win over Texas A&M in the SEC tournament second round Thursday night could seal a berth to the Big Dance. What’s certain is that a loss would leave the ‘Dores sweating.

Or, Vanderbilt could eliminate all questions by winning the entire conference tournament, claiming the SEC’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. Let’s take a look at why that will (or won’t) happen.

Why Vanderbilt can win the SEC tournament

The Commodores’ 10-8 conference record and No. 7 seed are misleading. After starting 2-4 in league play, Vanderbilt has won nine of its last 13 games to close out the regular season. Impressive wins over Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Iowa State have padded a previously nonexistent NCAA tournament resume in a period lasting only a couple of months.

In short, Vanderbilt has played nearly lights-out basketball since a loss to Georgia on January 17. Aside from a brutal 20-point road loss at Missouri, a home loss to Ole Miss represents the Commodores’ only questionable performance (and even then, the Rebels were so hot from three in that game that there wasn’t a ton Vanderbilt could do).

Coach Bryce Drew’s squad looks like a solid favorite over Texas A&M in its first game, and a potential semifinal matchup with either Arkansas or Ole Miss shouldn’t scare anyone. Arkansas ranks only one spot ahead of Vanderbilt in Ken Pomeroy’s predictive rankings, while Ole Miss looks bound for the NIT.

Additionally, it isn’t a sure thing that Kentucky will be waiting in the SEC title game, should Vanderbilt get that far. According to Pomeroy, whose rankings are considered the most accurate available in terms of prediction value, the Wildcats only have a 64.5 percent chance to advance to the conference championship game. Kentucky will be a heavy favorite in any quarterfinal or semifinal game it plays, but the fact that it must win multiple games means it has more chances to randomly have a bad night.

Second-seeded Florida would provide a stiff test for Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals, but the Commodores have shown they can beat the Gators via a regular-season sweep. Florida would be the favorite, but the Commodores defeated the Gators last week despite shooting an uncharacteristic 5-of-22 from three. If Florida’s defensive rotations aren’t as sharp or Vanderbilt simply gets hot from deep, a third win over the Gators is in the cards.

Overall, Vanderbilt is arguably playing like the SEC’s third-best team at the moment. It’s already beaten Texas A&M, Florida and Arkansas, and those three teams could easily be the Commodores’ opponents en route to the SEC title game. Vanderbilt is 5-2 in its last seven games against likely NCAA tournament teams; it’s shown the ability to consistently defeat quality opponents, which means the ‘Dores have a completely legitimate shot to win the SEC tournament.

Why Vanderbilt won’t win the SEC tournament

It’s fair to say the odds are stacked against Vanderbilt this week.

Arguably the biggest contributor to Vanderbilt’s long odds is the fact that the ‘Dores didn’t earn a double bye at Bridgestone. Instead of needing to win only three games to take home the conference tournament crown, Drew’s squad must win four games in four days to do so.

The impact of this issue becomes apparent via Pomeroy’s SEC tournament forecast. Pomeroy’s model gives Vanderbilt a measly 4.2 percent chance to win the SEC tournament, the fifth-highest chance. Each of the four most likely champions have double byes that place them in the quarterfinals to start the tournament.

Additionally, the extra fatigue associated with playing in the second round could cause issues. Drew doesn’t have much depth to work with, as he has only six players who he can rely on for certain against top competition.

Not only will the sheer number of wins necessary to take home the title cause problems, but the nature of Vanderbilt’s likely opponents will as well. A win over Texas A&M is far from a guarantee — the Aggies tortured Vanderbilt in the paint last time out with big men Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, and they’ve won games away from home against Ole Miss and likely NCAA tournament-bound Virginia Tech.

Of course, the quarterfinal game against Florida is the major roadblock, since it isn’t assured that Kentucky will truck through its side of the bracket. Florida ranks as a top-10 team in the entire country by both Pomeroy’s rankings and RPI, and the Gators would be highly motivated after two tense, last-second losses to Vanderbilt during the regular season. Head coach Mike White’s team would also have an extra day of rest and will get the benefit of scouting Vanderbilt live Thursday night.

Finally, the strong possibility exists that Kentucky will make the championship game, even if it isn’t guaranteed. In this case, Vanderbilt would need to defeat a second top-10 opponent to win the title, an extremely difficult proposition for any team. That’s a particularly tall order for a Commodore team that has lost its first SEC tournament game each of the past three seasons.

While Vanderbilt has a shot based on how well it’s played lately, the number of wins necessary and the presence of Florida and Kentucky in the bracket make a conference tournament title unlikely.


Vanderbilt will get a tough game from Texas A&M on Thursday, as Davis terrorizes the ‘Dores in the paint again en route to 20-plus points. Ultimately, the Commodores’ superior guard play will allow them to pull away and win a competitive, low-scoring game similar to the teams’ last matchup on February 16 at Memorial Gym.

On Friday night, Vanderbilt take Florida to the wire again in what will be one of the best games of the tournament, if not the best. Ultimately, the ‘Dores won’t be able to find enough open threes and Florida will score a bit too easily. Vanderbilt falls due to the heroics of KeVaughn Allen and Devin Robinson, who each take advantage of the Gators’ excellent spacing to put the Commodores away.

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About the Contributors
Ziyi Liu, Author

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