Vanderbilt had a chance to close out their regular season with a bang. That failed miserably.
Now, they're looking at their last chance to prove that they belong amongst the NCAA's best teams when Selection Sunday rolls around. Unfortunately, that chance comes in a tournament where Kevin Stallings's teams have been famously unsuccessful in the past - the SEC tournament.
Vanderbilt is likely a NCAA Tournament lock at this point. The Commodores have big wins over potential tourney teams like Marquette, Florida, Alabama, and Davidson. Their only truly bad loss on the season was against Indiana State. However, unless they can string together some wins this weekend, they could be staring down a seven seed - or worse - and a rough road on the NCAA's biggest stage.
So how can the Commodores improve their stock? By winning (of course). But who would provide them with the greatest value over the course of a three day tournament? Let's look at their potential opponents and find out.
Mississippi State: This potential Friday showdown with RIck Stansbury's talented-but-eccentric team could end up being Vanderbilt's most important of the tournament if they fall short of the Finals. The Bulldogs are stocked with All-SEC players and potential NBA Draft picks, but have been unable to play up to that ability. They don't have a win this season over a team that is currently ranked.
However, they do have a win over the Commodores, which is something that this team would like to fix. Mississippi State put together a lights-out shooting exhibition in the second half to erase Vandy's 11-point lead and eventually win in overtime. The Bulldogs will be looking for a series of wins to pull them out of the lower third of the at-large bids. A win over Vanderbilt would go a long way in getting them down to a single-digit seed.
For Vanderbilt, a big win on a neutral could would erase the bad feelings of January's loss and give this team another win over a probable tournament team. The best case scenario for Vandy is getting this Bulldog team on Friday night and beating them soundly. A win there would erase some - but not all - doubt over whether or not they belong as a six seed or higher.
Georgia: The other Bulldogs may have slogged through a disappointing season but they proved that they can pull off an upset, toppling both Mississippi State and Florida this season. Vanderbilt has already beaten them twice this season, but their second matchup, a sloppy 61-52 contest, didn't do much to inspire confidence in Vandy's abilities.
Georgia is ranked 113th in the RPI rankings and would be playing to ensure a winning record for the season against Vanderbilt. They'd likely be significant favorites, but crazier things have happened with this team at the SEC Tournament in the past. A win over the Bulldogs likely has very little impact over Vandy's seeding, other than giving them chance to win a game over a more established opponent. A loss would likely keep the Commodores out of top-six consideration on Selection Sunday.
Tennessee: Vanderbilt stumbled into the postseason by losing their previous game at Thompson-Boling Arena against a Tennessee squad that out-toughed them every step of the way. The team's "big three" were turned into non-factors and Vandy ended up losing a messy contest during UT's senior day.
The win was another step forward for the resurgent Volunteers. A team that stood at 9-11 less than two months ago has played their way onto the fringe of the NCAA Tournament bubble thanks in part to an 8-1 record in their last nine games. Their early season troubles have the Vols at just 75th in the RPI, but a win over Vanderbilt's in-state rival would hold much more cache than that.
A loss to a team that's peaking at just the right time wouldn't be fatal, but it would give doubters all the ammunition that they would need to bet on another horse. Losing to UT would theoretically be more costly than a loss to Mississippi State, but since it would be preceded by a Friday win, it could be a net positive for the Commodores. A win on Saturday would lend credence to this team's legitimacy by propelling them to the conference title game - a place they've never been under Kevin Stallings.
Ole Miss: Tennessee will start their tournament against the winner of Thursday's Ole Miss/Auburn showdown, but could be ripe for an upset after an emotional win over Vandy last week. The Rebels would be looking for revenge after Vandy put a 102-76 starching on them back in February. That game sent Mississippi on a three-game losing streak, but they rebounded to pull to 8-8 in the conference with three straight wins to close out the season.
Ole Miss hasn't been good enough to play themselves back onto the bubble, but they have been good enough to beat Mississippi State and Miami (FL) this year. That's helped them get to 60th in the RPI rankings. A win on a neutral court over a decent team wouldn't raise them up an entire seed on the committee's S-Curve. Instead, it would likely cement their spot in the 6/7 range and give them a stronger foundation to build off of with a win in the finals.
Auburn: A win against Auburn does nothing for Vanderbilt's tournament profile. The Tigers are ranked 138th in the RPI rankings and have already suffered a 65-35 loss at the hands of the Commodores in 2012. However, a loss to the lowly Tigers would almost certainly drop Vandy down the S-Curve and into the 7/8 seeding zone. That is the worst possible outcome for Saturday's matchup.
Kentucky/Florida/Alabama/LSU: There are six different teams that Vanderbilt could face on Sunday for the SEC Title, should they make it that far. Odds are pretty good that the one waiting for them will be #1 Kentucky. A win over UK, which would be just the Wildcats' second loss of the season, would put Vandy in a rare position. A Mississippi State/Tennessee/Kentucky slate of wins could be enough to bring them all the way to a #3 seed in the big dance.
A Sunday win over Florida wouldn't be as impressive, but still carry much weight in the world of college basketball. A SEC title wouldn't just show that Vanderbilt can beat talented teams, it would signify that this team had removed the postseason monkey from their backs. This confidence, combined with three extra wins, would be enough to carry the 'Dores to a #4 seed or better.
Any loss in the SEC Tournament finals, barring a miracle run by South Carolina, would not be likely to have a negative impact on this team's seeding.
With two best-case scenario wins, this team can play its way up from a borderline 6/7 seed to a firm 5 or possibly better. A win in the SEC Tournament title game, pending their opponent, could rise them up as highly as a 3 seed. An early exit or a disappointing semi-final loss could drop this team into unfavorable 7/8 territory and the toughest possible matchups throughout the NCAA Tournament.
In order to clear a favorable path to the Final Four in New Orleans, this team is going to have to borrow a culture from the university's football team. James Franklin and a group of passed-over recruits rallied their way to a bowl game in 2011 behind the mantra of a "Brand New Vanderbilt." On the basketball team, the coach is the same and this team's key players have all been in Nashville for three years or more. The "brand new Vanderbilt" is going to have to be a mental shift more than anything.
It stands to reason that dialing this team's attitude up to 11 could carry them to a SEC title. With that would come the most desirable road to New Orleans. However, the only way they'll get there is by doing something that no other team in the Stallings era has done - find success at the conference tournament. It's not an unreasonable task by any means, but this team will be fighting their own stigma on top of the SEC's best teams come Friday.