Five on Five: Vanderbilt trending upward as postseason begins

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Five on Five: Vanderbilt trending upward as postseason begins

Riley LaChance (13) as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

Riley LaChance (13) as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

Ziyi Liu

Riley LaChance (13) as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Riley LaChance (13) as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

According to many experts, Vanderbilt’s NCAA tournament hopes were on the line Saturday as No. 12 Florida paid a visit to Memorial Gym.

Down by 12 points in the second half and trailing for most of the game, Vanderbilt put together a stunning comeback to clip the Gators 73-71. The Commodores sent Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler out in style on Senior Day, but they’ll still face pressure to win a game or two in the SEC tournament this coming week as the No. 7 seed.

Where do Vanderbilt’s NCAA tournament prospects stand? And how’d the ‘Dores get here in the first place? Read on for five questions and five answers from five Hustler sports reporters.

1. Where do you think the win over Florida ranks among all-time games in Memorial Gym’s history?

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: Assuming Vanderbilt makes the NCAA tournament, it’s clearly one of the two most significant home wins in my four years here, right up there with last year’s Kentucky game. This win might become underrated as the years go by, due to the impressive comeback, the stakes and how it could serve as a springboard for success under Bryce Drew. It was a tremendous game, and it should be viewed as one of the best Memorial has seen (although obviously not the best).

Elias Ukule, sports reporter: That’s a lot of games we’re talking about. As far as the wins that I have witnessed in my time here as a student, this is right up there. Perhaps the emotional weight is equal to that win against Kentucky last year, when students stormed the court, but this one was way more important, not only because it came at the end of the regular season, giving Vanderbilt momentum heading into the post season, but also because of what it might mean for Vanderbilt in the NCAA picture.

Jack Fader, sports reporter: Certainly the best of the season and since I have been following the Commodores. The energy was electric and absolutely willed Vanderbilt back into the game in the second half on the way to the win.

Max Herz, sports reporter: Nowhere near some all time individual performances like Shan Foster’s 42-point game or some more highly ranked games with both teams in the top 15, but it was certainly the best in recent memory and will be one Vandy fans look back on as the first massive victory of Bryce Drew’s tenure here.

Max Schneider, sports reporter: This win ranks right up there with the best of them. Last year’s victory over Kentucky seemed to take the cake, but this year it meant more. There was no court storm, but the crowd stuck with this team all the way. The win also put them in the driver’s seat to snag a spot in the NCAA tournament, a thought unheard of just weeks ago. If Vanderbilt does make the tourney and is able to muster some success, this one will go down in Memorial lore.

2. What are your thoughts on the Commodores heading into the SEC tournament? What do you expect from them at Bridgestone Arena?

Weinstein: I think Vanderbilt is playing like the third-best team in the conference, and that could easily result in a semifinal appearance. Texas A&M will probably provide a test in the first game on Thursday night, as beating a capable team three times in a season is difficult. A semifinal game against Arkansas feels like a comfortable matchup, though, if the ‘Dores can find a way to get through Florida a third time in the quarters. Vanderbilt finally has shown it can win even without shooting well from three, which means it’s capable of stringing together multiple wins at Bridgestone.

Ukule: As the seventh seed, Vanderbilt will face Texas A&M in its first tournament game. Although it won both games it has played against the Aggies, their two bigs, Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, might create matchup problems that we saw the second time around. If Vanderbilt can crash the glass and control the paint, it should trump them with its three-point shooting. If the Commodores win that game, they face Florida, who they’ve actually swept this season, but winning by only two points each time.

It will be a tough ask, but given the momentum the ‘Dores have built up with their late-season rally, I’m feeling pretty good about their chances to get at least one, if not two, wins at Bridgestone. Hoping for an even deeper run would be very optimistic, but given the fact that they have beaten the three teams in the top four at least once this season, I wouldn’t put it past them, given they stick to a formula that worked the last times around. Facing Kentucky in the tournament final to have a third go at them; wouldn’t that be something!

Fader: They’re playing their best basketball of the year for sure, and without the wheels falling off in Lexington would be riding a 5 game win streak. They might be the hottest team in the SEC, and I see no reason for them not to be able to make a run to the final in their home city.

Herz: Vandy’s recent SEC Tournament performances are cause for concern but, like most results from the previous three seasons, I’m willing to throw them out thanks to Kevin Stallings’ departure. Vanderbilt’s success with only one day between games in wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina bodes well for a back-to-back situation. I expect an opening-game win and at least a competitive effort in the quarterfinals, likely leading to a semifinal berth.

Schneider: You would think that the team with the fifth-toughest strength of schedule in college basketball would get a little break, but for the Commodores, it’s right back to business and a very tough draw in the SEC tournament. Texas A&M poses a tough first-round matchup in a pivotal game for Vandy, and a win would secure a third meeting with Florida that would have tremendous tournament implications. The good news for Vanderbilt: It’s 4-0 against its first two opponents. Barring maybe Kentucky, this Vanderbilt team has the talent to beat every team in the SEC and could feasibly make a tournament run.

3. Will Vanderbilt make the NCAA tournament? Does it deserve to?

Weinstein: I think it probably will, based on how heavy an emphasis the selection committee has placed on quality, top-50 wins the past few years. Vanderbilt has five wins over NCAA tournament teams, something few bubble competitors can say. It also has the toughest non-conference schedule (something the committee will love) and has a winning record against the RPI top-200. One win in the SEC tournament will probably be enough, but there are always surprises on Selection Sunday.

As for whether the ‘Dores deserve to make the tournament, that’s more complex. In a normal year, I would say no. I don’t hesitate to say that quality mid-majors like last year’s St. Bonaventure and Monmouth teams that were relegated to the NIT would be more deserving by my judgment. But there are few mid-major teams with good resumes this year, and the best ones look like they’ll make it anyways (MTSU, Wichita State and Illinois State). Almost all of the other bubble teams are similar to Vanderbilt in that they are power-conference squads with mediocre records and strong schedules. Compared with these 2017 bubble teams, the Commodores will probably be deserving. Most years, they would not be.

Ukule: Absolutely. They should make the NCAA tournament based on their resume compared to other bubble teams. Vanderbilt now has three wins against opposition ranked in the top 25 at the time they played them. Moreover, they have the toughest non-conference schedule as well as the second-toughest overall schedule in the nation. If the selection committee can look at these wins against the big players and look past the Commodores’ missteps against lowly teams like Missouri, they should get in.

Fader: I believe that the win over Florida is enough if they don’t get upset in the SEC tournament. I don’t see the committee putting a 17-15 team in, but an 18 or 19 win team makes a much better argument with the wins they have under their belt, especially when looking at the weak competition on the bubble. Playing the 2nd hardest schedule in the country and finishing as strong as they have, I would say Vandy deserves to be in.

Herz: Yes and yes. I think it’s more deserving than last year’s team.

Schneider: Whether or not the Commodores go dancing likely hinges on one more contest. Thursday’s matchup with the Aggies is a make-or-break game. Losing in the first round would put Vanderbilt at 17-15, ending the season on an upset loss that wouldn’t bode well for it. However, a win should seal the deal, because the committee surely should not expect a third win against a top RPI team in Florida.

No team has ever gotten an at-large tournament bid with 15 losses, but with the Commodores strength of schedule, they look like they might be the first. Looking around at the unimpressive resumes from teams on the bubble, it’s easy to see why. Bryce Drew has earned the right to claim the tournament spot that his Valparaiso Crusaders just missed out on last season, and now his team looks like it deserves it.

4. If the Commodores make the NCAA tournament, what do you expect from them?

Weinstein: Vanderbilt is playing like a top-30 or top-35 team right now, and the ‘Dores could potentially overpower a First Four opponent like USC, Illinois or Xavier. I don’t think they’d be favored against Wake Forest, and Illinois State would probably be an evenly matched opponent. Without knowing the draw, I’d say that Vanderbilt has a better than 50-50 shot to win a First Four game, and it would have an excellent chance at pulling an upset over teams like Maryland, Wisconsin or Creighton in a 6-vs.-11 or 7-vs.-10 Round of 64 game. Optimally, the Commodores would avoid Saint Mary’s, SMU and Oklahoma State if they find their way into the main bracket.

Ukule: It very much depends who they face and what they can achieve in the SEC tournament. If the ‘Dores can make a deep run in the SEC tournament, they might be able to carry that momentum into the NCAA tournament, then who knows. The good thing is that the team is peaking and playing their best basketball right before the postseason. The inconsistency of the team means that if they are firing on all cylinders, they can make a run in the tournament, but if they play like they did in frustrating losses we have seen, they could go out in the first round.

Fader: If they are in, I don’t exactly expect much from this team. They will be a lower seed and definitely get a tough opponent in the first round or even the First Four. That being said, this team has defied the odds for the past month, and has the ability to rip off a few wins in the dance if they catch fire.

Herz: At a bare minimum, one heck of a fight in a First Four game. These Commodores are a proud group at the moment, and this team is ready to show that it’s not fluke. That desire will only grow after pundits question its March Madness bid. This team wants to show it belongs.

Schneider: Recent history has shown that a team that can knock down threes in bunches can pull off upsets in the NCAA tournament. It’s also shown that since the expansion to 68 teams, one team from the First Four has gone on to win its Round of 64 game every year. The Commodores are likely to be one of those First Four teams. This is a team that has improved tremendously and is hot at the right time, so if Vanderbilt can continue to shoot the lights out, two tournament wins could be in the cards. If not, we could see a repeat of last year’s blowout loss to Wichita State.

5. How would you characterize Vanderbilt’s turnaround from earlier this year?

Weinstein: I’m surprised by how much the team has improved defensively. Luke Kornet quietly had a poor start to the season on defense, at least according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. He’s gotten much better over the last couple of months, culminating in Florida coach Mike White’s comment that he’s the best defensive player in the SEC. Joe Toye has improved after a slow start, as has Jeff Roberson. Before the season, I thought Vanderbilt would be an NIT team. Halfway through, the team didn’t even look that good. The fact that they’ve won 10 RPI top-100 games and look somewhat likely to make the NCAA tournament speaks to the players’ work ethics and attitudes, as well as to Drew’s coaching ability.

Ukule: Bryce Drew has done an amazing job with this team in his first year. Three things stand out to me in terms of the turnaround. First is the emergence of players who did not play very well at the beginning of the season. The production of Nolan Cressler has gone up, with players like Djery Baptiste contributing more as well. But perhaps nobody embodies this improvement more than Joe Toye, who was able to break into the starting lineup and contribute as a defensive specialist.

Speaking of defense, that is the second factor that marked Vanderbilt’s improvement. If you look at that streak where it won four straight games, defense was huge as it held its opponents to lower scoring and field-goal percentages, like when it held Mississippi State under 50 points. Moreover, its defensive intensity at the end of close games under the two-minute mark has improved as well, which bodes well for the postseason.

Fader: Exciting. This team went from being a chore to watch early on, slow on offense and chucking shots, to a team that spreads the ball around, makes hustle plays, and gets out in transition. Bryce Drew has done an amazing job with this team and it only means good things for the future.

Herz: Vanderbilt’s recent success is proof that Bryce Drew was a great hire. The unwavering belief he has in his players shows every day, and the team’s willingness to go all-out for him and buy into his principles is evident through its recent defensive strides. Yeah, they lost some games they should’ve won, but Drew has gotten the most of this year’s roster and is a highly capable Power Five coach.

Schneider: It’s safe to say some Memorial Magic has touched this team over the past six games. It wasn’t too long ago that this was a 9-11 team that was playing for an NIT bid, but Drew has done a fantastic job getting his guys back in the race, scoring some signature wins in the process. In a word, this team is mature. It moves the ball around, plays unselfish basketball and understands how to hold on to leads late in games. They aren’t making the same mistakes they were making a month ago, and it has really paid off. What looked like an immature team during non-conference play has blossomed into a threat as guys like Joe Toye and Nolan Cressler have taken on bigger roles. Closing it out, however, requires all the maturity they can muster.

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