The Black & Gold Standard is an all-new VandyRadio Blog featuring general commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following every Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball game. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage (along with, on occasion, Max Herz and Dan Helinek) will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball throughout the season as the team chases a postseason berth for the first time since 2012. Check out the Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the young ‘Dores fight through the 2014-15 schedule.
“We wanna keep playing.”
This was Vanderbilt men’s basketball head coach Kevin Stallings’s response after a 66-56 win over Mississippi State Wednesday when asked about his team’s postseason chances. The Commodores’ moribund hopes of playing ball past the SEC tournament following a seven game losing streak in January have been resurrected with seven wins in the next nine games.
The ‘Dores recent upswing leaves them at 18-12 overall and eighth place in the SEC with a 8-9 conference record heading into a pivotal road game against third place Ole Miss. Present are a plethora of outcomes with regards to SEC tournament seeding, as Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee all sit within a game of Vanderbilt in the race to avoid undefeated conference champion Kentucky in the SEC quarterfinals.
A win in Oxford against the Rebels likely would give Vandy the SEC’s 7 seed in the conference tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, paving the way for the ‘Dores to pick up additional résumé building wins in their pursuit of a spot in the NIT.
But more than that, a win against Ole Miss would represent an accomplishment that Vandy has not achieved to date: a win over a top-50 RPI team.
RPI is the most commonly used tool for both the NCAA tournament committee as well as the NIT selection committee, and Vanderbilt’s RPI rank hovers at a lackluster 101 presently. For context, the lowest-ranked RPI team invited to last season’s edition of the NIT was 88th ranked West Virginia, a team that picked up five wins over NCAA tournament teams playing a stacked Big 12 schedule.
While postseason committees typically don’t use a team’s RPI value itself to gauge a team’s worth, one’s record against top-50 and top-100 ranked teams is of paramount importance when it comes to acquiring an invite to the tournament in question. Teams must put together a respectable showing against quality opposition, along with avoiding “bad” losses to opponents ranked below the 100 mark in RPI. Additionally, a high strength of schedule value for both nonconference games and overall competition can affect how a committee views any one team.
Considering all this criteria, where do the Commdores stand in their chase for the postseason?
Vandy’s 0-6 mark against RPI top-50 opponents emphasizes the extent to which the ‘Dores have blown good opportunities this season, including tight home losses to ninth ranked Baylor and 35th ranked Georgia. Ole Miss, however, currently ranks 44th in RPI and a win over the Rebels undoubtedly would provide a big boost to Vandy’s own RPI, as road wins hold extra weight with the metric’s formula.
A strong point of the Commodores’ résumé is their strong 6-3 record against teams ranked between 51 and 100, including road wins over Alabama and Tennessee. VU is 5-2 against teams ranked between 101 and 200, and 6-1 against teams ranked lower than 201. Losses to Georgia Tech, Rutgers, and Mississippi State, all away from home, represent the black marks that continue to hold Vandy back from locking up a spot in the NIT. A weak nonconference strength of schedule ranking of 235 also does the ‘Dores no favors, as no one will be likely to cut Vandy some slack.
All this adds up to one conclusion: Vanderbilt is close to a NIT bid, but there is more work to be done. The team’s 6-9 record against the RPI top-100 is solid compared to that of the competition, but two more wins against top-100 opponents could put the Commodores over the top and into the postseason for the first time since 2012.
The need for more quality wins illustrates the importance of grabbing the SEC’s 7 seed. Vanderbilt can climb no higher than seventh in the conference and can fall no lower than ninth, but both the eight and nine spots present a potential matchup with top-ranked Kentucky in the quarterfinals. It seems imprudent to bank on a win over the Wildcats, so sneaking into the 7 spot is absolutely crucial, as a first round win over the SEC’s 10 seed leads to a Friday evening matchup with 2 seed Arkansas, a team that has been somewhat inconsistent away from home. Vandy simply gets a better opportunity to pad their résumé with quality wins if the ‘Dores stay away from Kentucky’s side of the bracket.
The problem for Vanderbilt is, while Florida will likely lose at Kentucky on Saturday to fall to 8-10 in the league, Vandy loses the two-team tiebreaker with the Gators by virtue of UF’s win over Arkansas compared with Vandy’s loss to the Razorbacks. Either a win against Ole Miss to pull the Commodores to 9-9 in the SEC is necessary, or Alabama must win at Texas A&M while Tennessee loses at home to South Carolina. The reason for this combination is that Tennessee’s inclusion in the tiebreaker gives Florida an advantage due to the Gators’ 1-0 record against the Vols, while the inclusion of only Alabama gives Vandy an advantage as a result of VU’s sweep of the Tide. Vanderbilt wins a three-team tiebreaker with Florida and Alabama with a 3-1 record against the two, but would place second in a four-team tiebreaker with only a 4-2 record against the other three compared to Florida’s 3-1 record. In this scenario, it is vital that only Alabama triumphs this Saturday and not Tennessee.
Once again, Vanderbilt can put an end to this confusing mess of tiebreakers with a win over Ole Miss and a Florida loss in Lexington. The path to the 7 seed is surprisingly simple, but a Rebels team that has asserted itself as a NCAA tournament squad stands in the way, on its home floor.
“We understand a little bit better each day what it takes to be a good team.” Stallings said after the win over Mississippi State Wednesday. “We’re just gonna do the best we can Saturday at Ole Miss and see what that gets us, and hopefully we get to keep playing.”
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