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.
Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule is finally here, and we finally can get a better handle on how this year’s group of Commodores will fair. After a brutal 2015 out-of-conference slate resulted in a whopping five losses, I was interested to see how the new coaching staff would react and what coach Bryce Drew’s scheduling philosophy would be.
While the strong 2015 schedule arguably helped put VU over the top and into the NCAA tournament, it appears Drew has taken a more conservative approach to scheduling than that of Kevin Stallings. Upon first glance, this might not be a bad idea, as the 2016-17 Commodores don’t project as a top 25 team. The schedule should, however, provide more than enough of a challenge to appease the NCAA selection committee while giving the team some strong tests before the SEC slate starts. Here’s the schedule, in chronological order.
November 11: vs. Marquette in Annapolis, Maryland
Marquette lost super-freshman Henry Ellenson to the NBA draft, but it should be significantly improved from last season, when it missed the NIT with a 20-13 record (8-10 in the Big East). The Golden Eagles return nearly everyone aside from Ellenson, and they get immediate help in USC grad transfer Katin Reinhardt, a scoring wing. Reinhardt’s above average three-point shooting will help Marquette in what was a weak area last season (33.9 percent in 2015-16). Marquette looks like a team that should at least challenge for an NCAA tournament berth, and I’d expect their KenPom and RPI numbers to fall somewhere between 30 and 60. This is a nice addition as a neutral-site game, especially since it’s a winnable one.
November 15: vs. Belmont
RPI: 97 Vandy’s next-door neighbors were relegated to the NIT last year, and the loss of Craig Bradshaw and his shooting and playmaking hurts. Everyone else returns, however, so Belmont will probably be a better overall team this season. As usual, Belmont projects as a high-scoring, pass-happy team on offense whose players don’t have the physical traits necessary to piece together a good defense. (Would you have guessed Belmont ranked 291st in defensive efficiency last year?) Scheduling this game provides a nice combination of a likely top-100 (and possibly top-75) opponent and a strong likelihood of winning, particularly since it’s a home game. The natural variance that comes along with playing a team that shoots a lot of threes is a tad worrisome, but this is a game worth playing. I’m not enthralled, however, by the fact that this is a home-and-home series, as there isn’t much reason for Vanderbilt to play non-conference road games against teams that usually fall outside the top 100 in the country. More on this later.
November 18: vs. Norfolk State
This is a typical throwaway buy game against a bottom-tier Division I team as part of the Las Vegas Invitational. Norfolk State’s three best players from last year all graduated, so this should be a massive blowout. Only having one game scheduled against a clear sub-200 team, however, is a strong feature of the schedule, and Drew and Co. should be praised for this.
November 21: vs. Bucknell
Bucknell looks likely to take a small step back from last year’s Patriot League championship campaign, but not a major one. The Bison lose a pair of key contributors in forward Chris Hass and guard Ryan Frazier, but they return enough talent that they should be right back near the top of the conference. A home game against a team ranked roughly around 150-200 doesn’t hurt, and this is a near-certain win. Bucknell ranked 19th nationally in free-throw rate (the ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts), so maybe this game will help prepare VU for the occasionally uneven whistles in the physical SEC.
November 24: vs. Butler in Las Vegas
Butler is an interesting case. The Bulldogs lose four seniors who were in last year’s rotation, including stars Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones. A strong supporting group of talent led by Kelan Martin, Andrew Chrabascz, and Tyler Wideman, however, looks ready to step in, while Butler also adds highly touted George Washington transfer Kethan Savage. The defense wasn’t impressive last year (110th nationally in efficiency), but adding more athleticism to the lineup should help quite a bit there and challenge Vanderbilt’s guard play. Butler almost certainly looks a step behind Villanova and Xavier in the Big East, but it’s also almost certainly an NCAA tournament team. I could see the Bulldogs landing anywhere between a No. 4 and No. 9 seed, and getting a neutral-court game against a team in that range is always valuable.
November 25: vs. Arizona/Santa Clara in Las Vegas
Arizona KP: 21
Arizona RPI: 28
Santa Clara KP: 247
Santa Clara RPI: 249 A matchup against Arizona—a likely top-10 team playing a reasonable six hours from home over a holiday—would be a nice bonus opportunity, although the likelihood of a win would be slim. The Wildcats lose a fair amount of talent from last year’s disappointing team (for them, at least), but their loaded recruiting class will keep them afloat. Finnish freshman big man Lauri Markkanen lit up FIBA’s U20 European Championships this summer, as he was named to the tournament’s “All-Star Five” in averaging 24.9 points per game. That’s an impressive feat for a player with no high-level youth club experience. Redshirt freshman wing Ray Smith should be ready to make major contributions, as well, so U of A projects to have plenty of depth. It’s difficult to beat top teams like Arizona without a point guard, but that’s what Vanderbilt will face if it’s able to get by Butler.
With a loss to Butler, a far less intriguing matchup against Santa Clara would be on tap, assuming the Broncos don’t get by Arizona. Santa Clara had a down season last year, but it returns nearly everyone and projects as a top 100-150 team, if not better. Leading the group of returnees is high-scoring guard Jared Brownridge, who dropped 44 points on Arizona last year in an overtime loss. Adding a neutral-court win over Santa Clara would be relatively worthwhile, and a loss wouldn’t kill Vanderbilt’s résumé by any means. This game is worth the trade-off for getting a shot at Butler and a potential shot at Arizona.
November 29: vs. Tennessee State
Like with Belmont and MTSU, local Vanderbilt fans reading this probably know more about TSU than I do. TSU likes to force turnovers (14th nationally in turnover percent last year), so this will serve as a nice test for VU’s ball-handlers. The Tigers lost a fair amount of production from last year, but I’d tentatively expect them to fall somewhere near last year’s range in terms of rankings. There isn’t a ton of risk of TSU ending the season outside the top 200, so this is fine for a home game. I’m not a fan of ducking local teams from smaller conferences if it makes sense to play the games, and there’s nothing that doesn’t make sense about playing this one.
December 3: vs. Minnesota in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
RPI: 264 This is the weirdest game on the slate. Minnesota’s computer numbers were terrible last year, as was the team from a qualitative standpoint. The Gophers project as one of the worst teams in the Big Ten and offer little from a résumé perspective. What’s worse, a long trip to cold, far-off South Dakota isn’t the best way to freshen the team up during a mid-season three-game lull in the competition level. I have no idea why Vandy is playing this game, and it isn’t going to help them in March, even though it’s away from home.
December 6: vs. High Point
High Point put together a strong season in 2015-16, finishing 21-11 and winning the Big South regular season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, however, they lose four starters to graduation. That group includes two-time conference Player of the Year John Brown, and High Point doesn’t look to have enough depth to replace the production that’s now gone. Expect an easy victory here and for HPU to likely finish at 200 or worse in KenPom and RPI.
December 8: @ Middle Tennessee State
RPI: 77 I’m fine with playing MTSU at home, or maybe at a neutral site, but I don’t see the upside of traveling to Murfreesboro for this one. Vanderbilt’s been terrible on the road the past two years, and MTSU is more than good enough to win on its home floor. While Vanderbilt still might have an advantage in this one, a win over a team that has next to no chance of grabbing an NCAA at-large bid won’t add much to the résumé. The Blue Raiders would need to finish in the top 50 of both KenPom and RPI for this to represent more than just a “solid” win, and I doubt they’ll be particularly close to either mark after losing three starters. Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams should help, but he didn’t show much feel for the game or scoring ability in Fayetteville. MTSU is a good team and should contend for the Conference-USA title once again. But playing this game on the road still doesn’t provide much upside, while there could easily be a 50 percent chance of taking a loss. In my mind, that isn’t worth it. At least we get an up-close look at Giddy Potts, one of the best names in college basketball and a 50.3 percent three-point shooter.
December 17: vs. Chattanooga
Chattanooga is the heavy favorite to maintain the title of Tennessee’s second-best team this year, as the Mocs return the majority of a lineup that won 29 games a year ago. This is a dangerous game, as Chattanooga stole wins at Georgia, Illinois, and Dayton last year, snapping the Flyers’ 26-game home win streak. The Mocs even return wing Casey Jones, arguably their best player, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Chattanooga could easily improve upon the 12 seed they earned last season, and this could be a top-50 win by the end of the season. These types of games represent nice ways to artificially boost the RPI without playing such a difficult schedule as last year’s; strong low-major opponents tend to have a stronger RPI than their ratings in other metrics, so substituting bottom-tier Division I buy games for those with good low-major opponents makes a team’s résumé look a bit better than it actually is.
December 21: @ Dayton
RPI: 25 Vandy’s trip to Dayton will probably be its most challenging regular-season game aside from the trip to Rupp Arena, barring a matchup with Arizona and UD coach Archie Miller’s brother, Sean. Dayton returns the vast majority of its rotation, and at least a couple of its freshmen from last year should be able to step into bigger roles. The Flyers have made a habit of roasting Power Five opponents at home over the past 10 years, and we know Vanderbilt didn’t have the best experience with the UD Arena rims at the First Four (3-19 from three, 15-26 from the free-throw line). Forward Kendall Pollard in particular has both the quickness and athleticism to give Luke Kornet and D’jery Baptiste major problems when playing small-ball 5, and he already proved he can easily overpower Jeff Roberson when playing the 4. Dayton’s a top-25 team, and they’ve got the advantage over Vanderbilt in nearly every area, including the game’s location. This is a bonus opportunity, much as playing Arizona would be
January 28: vs. Iowa State
I’m a big fan of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, and VU once again gets a quality opponent in Iowa State. ISU doesn’t project as the top-15 team they’ve been over the past few years, but they should still easily make the NCAA tournament. The ‘Dores won’t get a lot of chances in SEC play to add wins over surefire NCAA tournament teams, so getting an opportunity like this at home is a big plus. The presence of ISU’s Monte Morris is intimidating considering Vandy’s weak point guard situation, but VU’s got enough talent at other positions to be favored over the Cyclones at home. ISU will bring a lot of shooting into Memorial Gym (38.7 percent last year, 21st nationally), but VU’s shot-blocking at the rim will hopefully force the visitors into more difficult shots than they’re accustomed to. This should be a tough game, but getting a home game with an NCAA tournament team that VU should be favored over is a big win.
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