Will Vanderbilt’s Late Season Turnaround Result in an SEC Title?Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2017
Coming into the SEC Tournament, most of the discussion surrounding Vanderbilt centered on the 17-14 Commodores potentially becoming the first at-large selection with 15 losses in the history of the NCAA Tournament. By most accounts, they were either on the right side of the bubble or solidly in the field. Given how well Bryce Drew‘s team has performed over its first two games of the tournament, Vanderbilt has erased any doubt about whether they will make next week’s Field of 68. As a matter of fact, many observers are now questioning whether that 15th loss will even come this weekend, as the Commodores winning the SEC’s automatic bid is no longer out of the question.
Vanderbilt’s resurgence over the past month to become the SEC’s fifth NCAA Tournament team has been nothing short of remarkable. After a 20-point beatdown at the hands of lowly Missouri on February 11, the Commodores stood at a middling 12-13 overall (5-7 SEC). Not only did an NCAA Tournament bid seem like a laughable proposition; even the NIT seemed anything but a sure thing. From that point on, though, Drew’s defense has shown dramatic improvement in winning seven of eight games, with the only loss coming at Kentucky in a game they led by double-figures in the second half. This is clearly not the same team that lost four of its first five SEC home games and got taken to the woodshed in Columbia.
Vanderbilt’s success is a testament not only to Drew figuring out how to use a roster that doesn’t have either a true point guard or a dominant post player, but also in navigating what turned out to be one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Commodores played certain or likely NCAA Tournament teams Marquette, Minnesota, Bucknell, Butler, Middle Tennessee, Dayton and Iowa State in their non-conference slate, and drew the good fortune of two games with each of the league’s three best teams during conference play. They are 6-10 against RPI top-50 teams, and have played only a handful of teams with low RPIs. It was a schedule that likely was more ambitious than Drew would have liked in his first year, but once his players figured out how to adapt to that system, the battle-tested Commodores were well-prepared for this late run. Given how well they are playing going into this afternoon’s semifinal match-up with Arkansas, winning the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2012 is well within reach.