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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.

Believing in the Bubble: Can Vanderbilt go dancing?

After ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak, the Commodores once again find themselves on the outskirts of the NCAA Tournament.
Ophelia Lu
Tyrin Lawrence throws down a dunk against Mississippi State, as photographed on March 4th, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu).

Winners of eight of its last nine, Vanderbilt is still kicking. For the first time all season, the Commodores are officially listed on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. More specifically, the Commodores are featured in the “Next Four Out” section. 

Lunardi does not speak for the official selection committee, but his predictions have historically been pinpoint: in the past five seasons, he’s correctly predicted 97.94% of all teams in the field. Per Lunardi, Vanderbilt is the seventh team out of the Big Dance. This means that despite all of their recent success, the Commodores still have work to do, and head coach Jerry Stackhouse knows that. 

“I want to look all the way to the top,” Stackhouse said after Vanderbilt’s weekend victory over Mississippi State. “I think we have the ability to do that.” 

Vanderbilt’s next challenge on its quest to the top will commence on Thursday, March 9 during the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena. The Commodores will face the winner of Wednesday’s matchup between No. 14 LSU and No. 11 Georgia’s first round matchup. 

Stackhouse and co. have seen both teams: They defeated the Bulldogs on the road in January, but fell to the Tigers in Baton Rouge just a couple of weeks ago. The LSU loss was particularly painful for the Commodores, as it ended a five-game win streak that put them back on the bubble map. Assuming the No. 6-seeded Commodores can take care of business against either of the lower seeds, they’ll face a very familiar foe in the quarterfinals against No. 3 Kentucky, again without star center Liam Robbins. 

For the first time in a while, though, making a run to the weekend of the SEC Tournament isn’t some distant, unattainable goal. Even last season, when the Commodores made a nice run in Tampa, taking down Georgia and Alabama before falling just short of Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Friday. While they would have needed to win the whole tournament to make the Big Dance, TtThe performance was enough to earn them a spot in the NIT, where they defeated Belmont and Dayton in Memorial Gymnasium before falling just short on the road against eventual champion Xavier, who would go on to win the tournament. It was an amazing season, but there was simply never any hope that the team would make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Its different this time around. It’s real. 

Whether through some Memorial Magic, March Madness or a glorious combination of both, Vanderbilt will be doing everything it can to earn its first bid since 2017.

— Aiden Rutman, Deputy Sports Editor

Winning eight of nine is nothing to scoff at, especially in one of the most premier conferences in college basketball. So, let’s assume that Vanderbilt takes down either LSU or Georgia and then Kentucky as well: will that be enough? 

This much is true: barring a miraculous run in which the Commodores win the SEC tournament and secure an auto-bid to March Madness, they are going to need some help. Let’s dig in. 

Last Four Byes

Let’s start with the teams the Commodores are up against. Vanderbilt has 15 “bubble-mates,” 14 of which rank ahead of it. Pitt (21-10, 14-6), NC State (22-9, 12-8), Auburn (20-11, 10-8) and Rutgers (18-13, 10-10) hold the final four byes in the tournament, according to Lunardi. 

On paper, it would not seem feasible for the Commodores to jump any of these four, considered somewhat ‘safe’ for a bid at this point. That said, they have defeated both Pitt and Auburn earlier this season. If either of those two were to fall in their opening matchups of their conference tournaments, and Vanderbilt went on a mini-run of its own, it’s possible Vanderbilt could jump either. 

Jordan Wright shoots a 3-pointer against Mississippi State on March 4 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu).
Jordan Wright shoots a 3-pointer against Mississippi State on March 4 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu). (Ophelia Lu)

It’s worth looking further into Auburn specifically, as the Tigers are Vanderbilt’s most jumpable target among the last four byes. All signs point to the committee taking at least eight SEC teams, as Lunardi has projected all season, and as they have done in every season since 2017. Six of them — Alabama, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas — are squarely in. From there, it’ll be Auburn, Mississippi State (more on them later) and Vanderbilt competing for the final two spots. For now, Vanderbilt’s win over both the Tigers and the Bulldogs are extremely favorable for its tournament hopes. 

Auburn, the No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament, will face No. 10 Arkansas in its opening matchup. There’s little doubt that if Auburn loses that game, and Vanderbilt wins two of its own, the head-to-head win that the Commodores have will propel them ahead of the Tigers. 

Of course, that alone won’t be enough. 

Over in the ACC, Pitt will face the winner of Florida State/Georgia Tech, and NC State will face the winner of Virginia Tech/Notre Dame. 

Rutgers — which ended its season losing three of its last four — will take on Michigan in the opening round Big Ten tournament. For these three, losses in the prior to the weekend could prove damning with teams like Vanderbilt knocking on the door. 

Last Four In

Now, let’s head to the “Last Four In” as we take a look at the teams on the true cusp of the tournament. Representing these in-betweeners are Mississippi State (21-11, 8-10), Nevada (22-9, 12-6), Wisconsin (17-13, 9-11) and Penn State (19-12, 10-10). These are the teams that the Commodores have a better chance to catch, and the teams that a first-round conference tournament loss would crush. 

Mississippi State will face a Florida team without Colin Castleton in the opening round of the SEC tournament, so a Bulldog loss there seems less than likely. However, Vanderbilt owns the head-to-head win over Mississippi State, so Black and Gold faithful should be rooting hard for the Gators to eek out a victory. 

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin, the No. 12 seed, will face No. 13 Ohio State in the opening round. Penn State, fresh off of a massive quadrant 1 victory over No. 21 Maryland, will take on Illinois in the second round. 

Out west, Nevada will battle San Jose State — another bubble team, albeit further down the pecking order — in the Mountain West conference tournament. 

First Four Out

The “First Four Out” features Utah State (24-7, 13-5), Clemson (22-9, 14-6), Oklahoma State (17-14, 8-10) and Arizona State (20-11, 11-9). These are the teams closest to receiving bids, and just like Vanderbilt, they’ll need to both win and receive some help in order to go dancing

Utah State will face the winner of No. 6 New Mexico and No. 11 Wyoming in the second round of the Mountain West Tournament. 

Oklahoma State will take on in-state rival Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament. 

Arizona State will take on Oregon State in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament. 

Clemson, the No. 3 seed (ahead of NC State and Pitt) will receive a double bye and play Virginia Tech/Notre Dame/N.C. State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. 

Next Four Out 

Finally we arrive at Vanderbilt’s section, the “Next Four Out.” Joining the Commodores in this section are Michigan (17-14, 11-9), UNC (19-12, 11-9) and Oregon (18-13, 12-8). According to Lunardi, the Commodores are currently ahead of the Ducks while ranking just behind the Wolverines and Tar Heels. 

Despite finding themselves amongst traditional March Madness powerhouses and even the preseason No.1 team (UNC) in the “Next Four Out”, Vanderbilt can likely jump all of the teams in this quadrant with just one win. 

Over in the Big Ten, Michigan has the hardest opening matchup of the four as they’ll face off against the aforementioned Rutgers. Elsewhere, North Carolina and Oregon will likely need to make it to at least the semifinals of their conference tournaments to bolster their weak resumes. 

Big Picture

Quentin Millora-Brown hangs onto the basket momentarily after dunking, as photographed on March 4th, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu).
Quentin Millora-Brown hangs onto the basket momentarily after dunking, as photographed on March 4th, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu). (Ophelia Lu)

Alright, that was a lot of words. What does it all actually mean? 

Here’s the bottom line: of the team’s 15 other teams listed above, Vanderbilt needs to beat out seven. For the next four days, every fan should be rooting for these team’s opponents — with the exception of Michigan and Rutgers, who play each other — as if it was their own team. 

It doesn’t end there, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which fanbase you ask). We mustn’t forget about the good ‘ol bid stealers. 

To explain it quickly; a ‘bid-stealer’ is a team that had no chance of earning an at-large trip to the Big Dance that runs the table, winning their conference tournament and earning an automatic bid. For instance, say a cinderella like South Carolina wins the SEC tournament; whichever team is the last on the bubble (currently Penn State) would simply get bumped off of the bubble to make room. 

It’s why being one of the last few teams can be nerve-racking: One crazy game from an 8-21 SWAC team later and a promising season gets flushed. 

It won’t be easy, that’s for sure. The Commodores will need to play well, have some higher-ranked teams stumble and avoid a stolen bid. Whether through some Memorial Magic, March Madness or a glorious combination of both, Vanderbilt will be doing everything it can to earn its first bid since 2017. 

Vanderbilt will be back in action in Bridgestone Arena on Thursday, March 9 at approximately 9 p.m. CST.

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Ophelia Lu
Ophelia Lu, Deputy Photography Editor
Ophelia Lu (’26) is from Los Angeles and is double majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering in the School of Engineering. She previously served as a staff photographer. When not covering events and sports games for The Hustler, you can find her listening to a lot of music, studying at Starbucks or lying on Alumni lawn. She can be reached at [email protected].
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Jeff Williams
1 year ago

Not a Vandy fan, but I’ve been to several games this year. Stackhouse has molded this somewhat motley crew into a disciplined, well-oiled machine. They play within themselves and for each other. Coaches are supposed to do that, and that’s why I think 2nd half wins should be weighed more. Losing Robbins was a big hit, but they just dug down a little deeper and beat two teams that are expected to be in the tournament. No matter what happens, this team (and coach) should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished, but if anyone deserves a shot, it’s Vanderbilt.

1 year ago

I’m rooting for Vandy, second to Kentucky. Otherwise, I would love to see them win the SEC. GOD BLESS! Jesus Loves You!