SMITH: Vanderbilt is deserving of NCAA Tournament bid

Regardless of what the Selection Committee thinks, Vanderbilt’s resume is deserving of an at large-bid.


Nikita Rohila

Vanderbilt against LSU at the SEC Tournament on March 9, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor

It became evident fairly early in Saturday’s SEC semifinal contest against Texas A&M that Vanderbilt wouldn’t have enough gas left in the tank to carry it to the championship round. Nonetheless, as they’ve done all season, the Commodores fought back when nobody believed they would. Vanderbilt cut down a lead that ballooned as large as 26 points in the first half to just 12 points with 13:08 left in the game but fell short against the Aggies, 87-75. Now eliminated from the SEC Tournament, the Commodores will await their fate from the NCAA Selection Committee later today, sitting squarely on the bubble.

Even after sustaining the semifinal loss to Texas A&M, I believe Vanderbilt’s resume deserves an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we handled our part of it,” Jerry Stackhouse said of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances on Saturday. “We’ve done all that we could do as far as playing the game I think the right way, playing hard, tough. There’s no doubt about it in my mind that we play in the best, toughest conference. When they talk about us getting eight or nine teams, there’s no way you’re going to tell me that we’re not one of the best eight teams in this league.”

He’s right.

With pundits predicting the SEC to have anywhere between seven and nine teams in the NCAA field, it’s hard to argue that the Commodores aren’t amongst that top group. Vanderbilt is undoubtedly playing like the third or fourth-best SEC team at the moment — and though the entire body of work is considered in a team’s NCAA resume — that ought to count for something.

After all, Vanderbilt finished tied for fourth place in the SEC and amassed 13 league wins, including the recent victories over LSU and Kentucky at Bridgestone Arena. As Stackhouse mentioned postgame, it did so against an unbalanced league schedule, as well.

Of league teams projected near them in the field, the Commodores beat Kentucky not once, but twice. They beat Mississippi State and Auburn and Arkansas. They beat Tennessee. In total, Vanderbilt racked up five Quadrant 1 victories against SEC foes.

Still, the Commodores aren’t getting much love from national analysts or computer metrics such as the NET (No. 81) or KenPom (No. 80). According to BracketMatrix, Vanderbilt is projected in just 13 of 118 recognized bracketologists’ predictions.

Ahead of Selection Sunday, it seems the Commodores will need a bit of luck as their fate hangs in the balance. To those that have followed the league closely all year, though, it’s clear that Vanderbilt deserves to dance.

Looking around the bubble

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the most prominent bracketologist in America, currently has Vanderbilt listed in his “First Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament, alongside Oklahoma State, Nevada and Clemson. That quadrant of teams is left on the bubble next to Lunardi’s “First Four In,” which features Mississippi State, NC State, Pittsburgh and Arizona State.

As aforementioned, Vanderbilt has a head-to-head victory over Mississippi State, though high computer metrics (No. 49 in the NET and KenPom) will likely keep them in. Arizona State, with high metrics and five Quad 1 wins, is likely safe as well.

Tyrin Lawrence dribbling versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)
Tyrin Lawrence dribbling versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)

Vanderbilt also has a head-to-head win over Pittsburgh, who I believe more than Lunardi to be on shakier ground. Unlike the Bulldogs, Pitt doesn’t have the benefit of dazzling advanced metrics: The Panthers rank No. 67 in the NET and No. 79 on KenPom. Jeff Capel’s squad was pummeled by Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, 96-69.

Elsewhere in the ACC, NC State — who beat Vanderbilt in December in Chicago — is rated favorably in the metrics like Mississippi State (No. 45/55). The Wolfpack were crushed by Clemson, 80-54, in the ACC quarterfinals and possess just one Quadrant 1 win all season.

How the Committee evaluates the strength of a very poor ACC will be a major crux in the matter of deciding the tournament field. Both Pitt and NC State boast higher computer metrics than Vanderbilt but built their resume against far weaker competition. Will the Committee favor the NET or the eye test when it comes to the two most prominent conferences in the Southeast?

Other teams along the bubble to watch will be Rutgers and Providence, who both suffered from unexpected early exits from their respective conference tournaments. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has won 10 of its last 12 games and advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Will recency bias play a part in the Committee’s selections?

Looking back at the bubble

Last year’s ‘Last Four In’ — Indiana, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Wyoming — possessed inferior records to 2023 Vanderbilt in two key areas: strength of schedule and Quadrant 1 and 2 victories. If the Commodores are to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Committee will need to place a heavier emphasis on those two variables rather than the computer metrics.

Vanderbilt’s strength of schedule (SOS), which finished No. 19 in the country, is far greater than any of 2022’s Last Four In. Indiana, with an SOS of No. 35 was the highest rated amongst the quadrant. Rutgers rounded out the group with an SOS of No. 71.

Colin Smith shoots a three against LSU at the SEC Tournament on March 9, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)
Colin Smith shoots a three against LSU at the SEC Tournament on March 9, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

“I think strength of schedule should mean something,” Stackhouse said after the Texas A&M game. “We didn’t want cupcakes — we wanted teams to help prepare us for SEC play.”

In terms of Quadrant 1 and 2 wins, the Commodores earned their 10th on Friday night against Kentucky. That figure eclipses any of 2022’s Last Four In, as Indiana and Rutgers both got in with nine Q1+Q2 wins, while Wyoming made their way into the field with just five.

It’s clear, then, that the results-based metrics historically used to evaluate potential NCAA Tournament teams favor Vanderbilt. The Commodores rank No. 40 in the RPI, the former preeminent computer metric of the Selection Committee, which is a purely results-based formula.

What it means

Regardless of what the Selection Committee inevitably decides tomorrow, Vanderbilt’s strong resume relative to fellow bubble hopefuls should earn them an at-large bid. The Commodores’ strength of record and top-heavy resume, including 10 wins over Quadrant 1+2 wins, should be enough to squeeze it into the field of 68.

Furthermore, Vanderbilt has passed the “eye test” with flying colors as of late. Since February, it has been one of the very best teams in the SEC and the Commodores proved that in Nashville by reaching the SEC Tournament semifinals, taking down No. 3 seed Kentucky in the process.

Jerry Stackhouse coaches from the sidelines against LSU at the SEC Tournament on March 9, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

“Yeah, we belong in the NCAA Tournament,” Stackhouse added in his postgame press conference. “Ain’t no doubt in my mind about that.”

Whether or not Vanderbilt will hear their name called on Selection Sunday remains to be seen, but this much is true: Excluding this Commodore team from the NCAA Tournament would be a mistake.