Commodores still behind in search for NCAA bid

The Black & Gold Standard is a VandyRadio sports blog featuring nuanced commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following Vanderbilt men’s basketball games and throughout the year. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball as the team looks to build on the success of last season’s NIT appearance. Check out The Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the Dores fight through the 2015-16 schedule. All stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.

After a pair of convincing wins against the SEC’s two worst teams, Vanderbilt suddenly finds itself sitting fourth in the league two thirds of the way through the conference season. As ESPN’s broadcast at Auburn on Saturday wouldn’t let you forget, the Commodores have begun to creep back up experts’ mock brackets and right onto the bubble at 15-10 overall.

Vandy is reaching toward the NCAA Tournament, but they aren't as close as ESPN would have you think. (Emma Magid)
Vandy is reaching toward the NCAA Tournament, but they aren’t as close as ESPN would have you think. (Emma Magid)

Forget what ESPN and Joe Lunardi have told you. The truth is that Vandy has a lot of work to do and likely isn’t anywhere near as close to the First Four in Dayton as SEC Network pundits Leader would have you believe. The Dores are far from done, but there are some serious stains on their résumé that need to be cleaned up ASAP.

As you’ve certainly heard before, a team’s record against top-100 RPI opponents represents one of the most important criteria assessed by the Tournament committee, as does a team’s record away from home. While the Commodores’ excellent strength of schedule rating (especially for nonconference play) will help VU get the benefit of the doubt from the committee, its miserable record in road and neutral court games and against quality opponents continues to kill its hopes.

After the dominating 86-57 win over a depleted Auburn team, Vanderbilt upped its road record to just 2-7 on the season. A 2-1 neutral site record helps a bit, but those wins over weak Wake Forest and St. John’s squads don’t carry much significance now. For as much attention as the Commodores’ struggles against top teams have gotten, VU’s 3-7 record against the RPI top-50 is more or less par for the course for a bubble team from a power conference.

Most teams in this position, however, cobble together a reasonably strong record against teams ranked between 51 and 100 in the RPI and are ultimately able to approach a .500 record against the top-100 as a result. Seton Hall is 2-4 against the top-50, but went 6-3 against the bottom half of the top-100. Butler offsets a 1-6 top-50 showing with a 4-1 record against 51-100. Washington’s résumé shows records 3-7 and 4-2 against these same categories. Seton Hall touts a 4-3 road record while Butler and UW check in with perfectly decent marks of 4-4 and 3-4 respectively.

One doesn’t have to search very hard to find other bubble teams padding their résumés as well. On Saturday alone, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Texas Tech added top-50 road wins over Maryland, Florida, and Baylor respectively while LSU defeated Texas A&M.

Stronger performances away from home will help put Nolan Cressler and VU in a better spot. That starts Tuesday at Mississippi State. (Emma Magid)
Stronger performances away from home will help put Nolan Cressler and VU in a better spot. That starts Tuesday at Mississippi State. (Emma Magid)

What about Vanderbilt? The Dores haven’t helped make up for that 3-7 top-50 record, as they’re only 1-2 against the rest of the top-100 with a win over Stony Brook and losses to LSU and Ole Miss. This major foible isn’t completely the Commodores’ fault, as Tennessee and Wake have been ranked in the top-100 for much of the season before falling out recently as they’ve picked up some bad losses. On the other hand, one can say the exact same for Arkansas, a team Vanderbilt lost to in early January.

Four of Vandy’s final six regular season games come against RPI top-100 foes, with home contests against Georgia and Kentucky offset by visits to Florida and Texas A&M. A losing record against top-100 teams has signaled the demise of many a bubble team, and VU’s impressive strength of schedule numbers can only carry it so far.

The Commodores’ ability to avoid bad losses means a .500 record against top-100 teams isn’t necessary to gain entry to the NCAA Tournament, but they’re going to have to be better than 4-9. While Joe Lunardi contends that the Commodores would be in the field of 68 if the season ended today, the truth is they’re closer to the “Next 4 Out” than the “Last 4 In.” What’s more, the conventional wisdom that a 2-2 record against the remaining top-100 teams on VU’s schedule will suffice may not be true. If the Dores want to feel even somewhat confident in their standing heading into the SEC Tournament next month, a 5-1 finish to the season is necessary.

A nice win or two at Bridgestone Arena in the conference tournament may well clinch a Tournament berth for Vandy even with a 4-2 finish, but two horrid league tourney appearances in a row serve as reason to believe VU needs to take care of business before the regular season is out. If not, its inferior record against top-100 foes could mean an unexpected relegation to the NIT.

Check out VandyRadio’s comprehensive Vanderbilt sports blog series. Building the Masonic Tradition covers Commodore football, The Black & Gold Standard covers VU hoops, and Eyes of the Hawk covers Vandy baseball. VandyRadio.com is your home for year-round coverage of your favorite Vanderbilt teams.

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