With Kentucky and Florida on deck, Commodores’ NCAA chances hang in the balance

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With Kentucky and Florida on deck, Commodores’ NCAA chances hang in the balance

February 25, 2017 – Riley LaChance (13) and Jeff Roberson (11) celebrate during the Commodores' 77-48 win against Mississippi State Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym.

February 25, 2017 – Riley LaChance (13) and Jeff Roberson (11) celebrate during the Commodores' 77-48 win against Mississippi State Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym.

Blake Dover

February 25, 2017 – Riley LaChance (13) and Jeff Roberson (11) celebrate during the Commodores' 77-48 win against Mississippi State Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym.

Blake Dover

Blake Dover

February 25, 2017 – Riley LaChance (13) and Jeff Roberson (11) celebrate during the Commodores' 77-48 win against Mississippi State Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

When Vanderbilt got demolished in a key road game against SEC bottom-feeder Missouri February 11, the Commodores’ postseason hopes appeared to be dead.

While an NIT bid wasn’t out of reach, Vanderbilt’s 12-13 record after losing to a Tigers team ranked around 250 in RPI suggested any hopes of an NCAA tournament appearance were gone. No team with more than 15 losses has ever made the Big Dance without winning its league’s automatic spot, meaning the ‘Dores had to go on a long hot streak to stay in the conversation.

With six games remaining, Vanderbilt’s longest winning streak this season was a measly two games in length. According to statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings — generally considered the best predictive system available — the Commodores had less than a one percent chance to win out. A despondent performance in Columbia provided little optimism for the team going forward.

“It looked like [Missouri] had eight guys out there to our five,” head coach Bryce Drew told Joe Fisher of the IMG Radio Network after the 72-52 loss. “They pretty much dominated the glass, dominated every loose ball.”

Four wins later, things have changed. Head coach Bryce Drew’s squad has tossed its season-long inconsistency aside and crawled back onto the NCAA tournament bubble. As of Monday night, 56 of 108 bracket projections aggregated by BracketMatrix.com since the Commodores’ win against Mississippi State have Vanderbilt in the tournament if the field were selected now. The website projects Rhode Island as the first team left out, as the Rams appear on 50 entries.

But what must Vanderbilt do to separate itself from its bubble competition?

The Assembly Call’s Andy Bottoms, the Matrix’s No. 1-ranked bracketologist, believes the relatively weak crop of bubble teams means Vanderbilt has decent position. Multiple teams under consideration haven’t even posted winning records against teams in the RPI’s top 200, while Vanderbilt has.

“If you’re not able to be, ideally, above .500 or at least within a couple of games of it for that level [against RPI top-200 teams], it can be pretty rough,” Bottoms told the Homefield Advantage on VandyRadio. “So I think in that regard, [the Commodores] compare somewhat favorably to some other bubble teams. … They’re at least in a better position than some of the other folks that they’re competing against.”

Vanderbilt’s resume could intrigue the selection committee due to its somewhat unique combination of impressive positives and sketchy negatives. Bottoms cited the Commodores’ blowout loss to Missouri as among their most concerning issues, while their relatively meager 16-13 record likely will be a problem as well.

“I think the temptation for people is to say that if you lose to Missouri, maybe that should be an automatic disqualifier, but I don’t necessarily fall in that camp,” Bottoms said. “They’ve played 29 games so far, and so that’s just a small part of that. I think the margin is probably the more concerning part than the loss itself. … Those are the kinds of sub-200 [RPI] losses that definitely stick out a little bit more.”

The 13 losses also carry with it the ominous possibility that the historic 15-loss “rule” comes into play. While no official rule bars 15-loss teams from receiving at-large bids, none has ever done so. One loss in its final two regular-season games and a failure to win the SEC tournament would put Vanderbilt right at that number.

There’s good news, though. If Vanderbilt can rack up enough wins to move further above .500 than than where it is now, the committee might look past its raw loss total.

“To me, it’s less about the number [of losses] itself than it is how far above .500 you end up being at that point,” Bottoms said. “… I don’t know that I would be necessarily shocked if a team with 15 losses got an at-large in a year like this, but I think they would have to play enough games, like where they get to a conference final or something like that, to where they’re 19-15 or 20-15. I’m not sure anybody has played enough games to get to that point, but I think it’s really just more the relation to where you are to the .500 mark at that point.”

Few, if any, bubble teams can match the Commodores’ play against top teams, however. Vanderbilt holds four wins over likely NCAA tournament teams and nine against the RPI top 100 overall.

The Commodores’ road performances compare particularly well with those of other bubble teams. Drew’s squad holds road wins over Florida, a likely No. 2 or No. 3 seed, and Arkansas, a team Bottoms described as somewhat comfortably in the tournament. A respectable 5-5 road record with such quality wins is unmatched by competitors like Syracuse (2-8), Marquette (3-6) and California (3-5).

“I think that’s one of the things when I look at their profile that really sticks out that is gonna be a positive for them,” Bottoms said. “The committee has talked about that a lot in recent years in terms of really trying to value road wins. … I think those are certainly positives and help work to offset that loss at Missouri, and losing at Alabama to a lesser extent. If I wanted to pick the top few things on their resume, that would absolutely be among the best for them, that .500 record in true road games.”

Perhaps the Commodores’ most entertaining game of the year came in an 84-78 home win over tournament-bound Iowa State. Not only did the win give Vanderbilt another quality victory, but it locked up a winning record in non-conference play.

This could play a big role in whether the committee ultimately selects Vanderbilt or not, as the team’s non-conference schedule ranks as the toughest out of 351 Division I teams. Teams such as South Carolina last year and SMU two years ago were punished for weak non-conference schedules by being left out of the tournament entirely.

But the Commodores’ tough out-of-league slate wouldn’t have mattered without good wins over Iowa State and, to a lesser degree, Belmont and Chattanooga.

“It’s a little bit like the road games in the sense that you can pick out a team or two each year that [the committee] has almost tried to make an example out of,” Bottoms said. “… It’s good to see that they’ve challenged themselves; the issue becomes ‘Did you actually beat any of those teams?’ That’s where the Iowa State win becomes really big, because, outside of that, playing a really good schedule is one thing but actually performing well against it is another.”

Between its own performance and recent blunders from fellow bubblers like Kansas State, Syracuse, TCU and Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt’s chances live on. Projecting the Commodores’ fate based on its future results, however, remains a challenge.

A major problem could lie in the form of Vanderbilt’s two final regular-season games. The ‘Dores have plenty of good wins, but their overall record could use improvement. Difficult games against SEC leaders Kentucky and Florida could add more losses to a resume that’s already chock-full of them.

“Vandy, I think, if they were able to split these Kentucky and Florida games, there’s no harm in losing one of them, and it gives you what’s assured to be a top-25 win, even if you can just get a split,” Bottoms said.

“I think if they won both of them they’d go to the SEC tournament feeling pretty good, as well they should. … I think a split probably, if you assume today that they’re in the field, I think it certainly doesn’t harm them, and it may actually improve that standing a little bit. And then losing both, I don’t know that it necessarily takes them out of it, but I think that really then makes them need to go on a pretty deep run in the SEC tournament. … I’m thinking if they lose both, they probably need a minimum of two, maybe even three wins in the SEC tournament, but that would depend largely on who they would play at that point.”

Bottoms opted to give Vanderbilt the benefit of the doubt and guessed that it would ultimately make its way into the field as one of the last teams selected. There’s a long way to go, however, as no one can say what the Commodores’ SEC tournament draw will be.

But regardless, Vanderbilt’s comeback from the moribund pulse it had three weeks ago represents an unlikely and encouraging turn of events in Drew’s first year at the helm on West End.

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