Memorial Minutes: Back on the bubble?
With a three-game winning streak that seemingly came out of nowhere, the Commodores now have an outside chance at making the NCAA Tournament.
February 14, 2023
When I wrote an edition of this column three weeks ago after Vanderbilt’s win at Georgia, I worried that that might be the last time the Commodores reached .500 in the SEC this season. Certainly, I wasn’t the only one, and the outlook only worsened after Vanderbilt’s embarrassing 101-44 defeat at the hands of Alabama. With a 3-6 conference record, bizarre quotes from Jerry Stackhouse and problems apparently originating in practice, I couldn’t really blame Vanderbilt fans for turning their attention to baseball a few weeks early.
But since then, the Commodores have put together their best stretch of basketball of the season and have climbed all the way up to No. 7 in the SEC standings. It started with an underwhelming but imperative win over Ole Miss on Feb. 4. Wednesday’s 66-65 win over Tennessee on Tyrin Lawrence’s buzzer-beater will live in the memories of Vanderbilt fans for years to come. With Saturday’s 88-80 win over Florida in Gainesville, Vanderbilt improved to 13-12 and 6-6 in league games.
One Q1 win can be a fluke, but the Commodores now have three (Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida), two of which came in the last week. So what’s behind this sudden resurgence? And more importantly, can it continue?
Here are a few things that have led to some of the ups and downs of this season, as well as what they might mean in the future.
Liam Robbins is back
Where else is there to start? Robbins recorded a double-double in two of the last three Vanderbilt wins and was only one rebound short against Tennessee. Since coming back from an injury that was supposed to keep him sidelined for at least four weeks ― it ended up only being two ― Robbins has been a nightmare in the paint on both sides of the ball. He’s averaging a league-leading 3.0 blocks per game on the season and swatted down seven shots against Ole Miss. His scoring is up, too. Robbins dropped a career-high 32 points against Florida and has the team’s most total points (299) despite missing four games. Even his three-point ball is a respectable threat at a 29.3-percent clip. If Vanderbilt is serious about making a run at the end of this season and into the postseason, Robbins will need to continue to play a major role.
Heroic 3-point shooting
Of course, Lawrence’s 3-pointer to beat Tennessee is one nobody wearing Black and Gold will forget for a long time. But he certainly hasn’t been the only one consistently knocking it down from behind the arc. Eight different Vanderbilt players are shooting over 30% from downtown, and, Lawrence, for all of his recent consistency, isn’t even one of them. Myles Stute, who returned to the starting lineup against Florida, leads this group with 60 three-pointers on the season at a rate of 40.5%. Vanderbilt as a team shot 52.2% from deep on Saturday including a 4-for-4 performance from Trey Thomas. A 33.2% team rate doesn’t stand out nationally, but it’s fourth in the SEC and has mixed incredibly well with points in the paint from Robbins and other forwards to keep the Commodore offense as dynamic as it has been. With that said, the Commodores still have one pretty glaring hole to address:
The defense still needs a LOT of work
As fun as it is to laud the rising offensive efficiency and see the Commodores put up higher scoring figures, far too many points are still being lost the other way. Now 12 league games in, Vanderbilt has held just two opponents under 70 points (Kentucky and Tennessee last Wednesday). Vanderbilt’s defensive efficiency is in the bottom half of Division I teams nationally according to KenPom, even when adjusted for its more difficult schedule. In conference games, it ranks dead last in the SEC in defensive efficiency, turnovers forced and steals per possession. As optimistic as Commodore fans may be about any March prospects, those metrics will have to improve for Vanderbilt to get to where they want to be.
With that said, Vanderbilt is sitting on a three-game winning streak, so let’s get back to the optimistic side of things. Naturally, after such a week as Vanderbilt’s had, there’s one question on everyone’s mind.
Does Vanderbilt really have a shot at the Tournament?
Stranger things have happened.
To work backward a bit, the most realistic path to the Big Dance for the Commodores is something like a berth in the SEC Tournament semifinals after an 11-9 or so regular season conference record. Optimistically, that record gets them the 5 or 6 seed at the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Given the format, that seed would give them one game against one of the weaker teams from the play-in round. If they were to win that game, they’d have a chance to play a team who is a little bit above .500 in the quarterfinals, and they’d be squarely on the Tournament bubble. It’s not a crazy scenario by any means, but it would definitely require between four and five wins out of the remaining six games in the team’s regular season schedule.
Luckily, a 4-2 or 5-1 finish doesn’t seem out of the question. Looking ahead, Vanderbilt is entering what is arguably the easiest stretch of their league schedule. Two of its three remaining away games are against South Carolina and LSU, teams that have a combined three league wins this year. If we’re really being serious about making March Madness, those are both must-wins. The final three home games are against Auburn, Florida and Mississippi State. All three of those teams are in pretty similar .500-ish, outside-looking-in positions as Vanderbilt is. At least two of those games would need to be wins, if not all three.
The odd game out is March 1 at Kentucky. While that game seems like a long shot, it probably can’t be a “scheduled loss.” The Wildcats have lost back-to-back games against Arkansas and Georgia and are themselves right on the Tournament bubble: ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Kentucky as one of the “Last Four In” as rumors of a potential John Calipari exit continue to swirl.
I’m fully aware that in this back-of-the-napkin hypothetical math I’ve just done, I’m assuming at least six wins against tough teams that very well may not materialize. Even worse, not winning five of those games or not making it to the SEC Championship game might give the selection committee an excuse to keep Vanderbilt out if the field is crowded enough. But if we really want to dream about seeing the Commodores at this year’s NCAA Tournament, the kinds of performances we’ve seen this week can’t just be a blip.
Vanderbilt starts its last six-game stretch of the regular season on Feb. 14 at 5:30 p.m. CST at South Carolina.