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Is the NCAA Tournament a realistic goal for Vanderbilt in 2016-17?

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Vanderbilt’s 6-5 start seems to have cast a pall over the season, but are the Commodores already doomed?

NCAA Basketball: Chattanooga at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to put a positive spin on the Vanderbilt Commodores’ 6-5 start to the regular season. It’s not just that the Commodores have lost five games (to Marquette, Bucknell, Butler, MInnesota, and Middle Tennessee), but the start to the season has revealed what seem to be some deep issues that may not get fixed in the 2016-17 season.

But what happens if those problems do get fixed? Is there any hope for this season?

The answer, it turns out, is a qualified yes. Vanderbilt can still make the NCAA Tournament — though of course it will require the Commodores to play a lot better than they’ve been playing. (And no, I don’t just mean the obvious “if they make a run in the SEC Tournament. I mean getting a deserved NCAA Tournament bid.) The slow start means that Vanderbilt has precious little margin for error, but if the team starts playing better, it can be done. Let’s take a look under the hood.

None of Vanderbilt’s losses are that bad

Obviously, projecting how teams will finish is a difficult task, but a look at Vanderbilt’s profile on RPIforecast.com suggests that Vanderbilt hasn’t suffered any really bad losses. No, not even Bucknell or Middle Tennessee: Bucknell is currently projected to finish with an RPI of 102, which would technically put them outside the top 100, but that’s on the assumption that Bucknell goes 13-5 in the Patriot League. If the Bison do better than that, that loss probably won’t hurt Vanderbilt much.

Meanwhile, three of Vanderbilt’s five losses are to teams that are projected to finish the season in the RPI top 50 (Butler, Minnesota, and MTSU), with Marquette projected to finish at 67. Of course, the RPI doesn’t pay attention to margins, so the fact that the Commodores got blown out by Marquette and MTSU is sort of irrelevant.

The bad news is that none of the Commodores’ six wins so far are likely to qualify as a “quality win,” though Tennessee State and Chattanooga are both projected to finish in the RPI top 100. (Let’s also take a moment to note that Duke had far more trouble with Tennessee State than Vanderbilt did.) So Vanderbilt will have to shore up that part of its profile...

But Vanderbilt does have some chances to add quality wins

And it’s not just the two remaining nonconference games (at Dayton tonight, and a home game against Iowa State on January 28.) But including those two games, Vanderbilt might have 11 more games against RPI top 50 teams. If we go by the numbers on RPI Forecast, we see that four SEC teams are projected to finish in the RPI top 50. And thanks to the SEC’s quirky scheduling, three of those teams (Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas) are teams that Vanderbilt will play twice each in SEC play. The Commodores also face South Carolina (projected RPI: 22) once, and Texas A&M (projected RPI: 56) twice.

The SEC’s leaguewide scheduling mandate means that a lot of teams should wind up with pretty good numbers in the RPI, so even though the Commodores haven’t picked up a spate of quality wins outside of conference play, there are suddenly a boatload of opportunities -- roughly half the conference schedule, in fact — to pick up quality wins in SEC play. There also aren’t a lot of potential landmines left on the schedule, as Missouri and Mississippi State -- probably the SEC’s two worst teams, especially in terms of RPI — are only on the schedule once each. RPI Forecast projects Vanderbilt to finish with the 8th-best strength of schedule in the country.

But obviously, Vanderbilt will have to play better than this.

Right now, Ken Pomeroy projects Vanderbilt to finish with a record of 14-17, 7-11 in the SEC. Pomeroy only has Vanderbilt favored to win in five of its remaining games — home games against Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, and a road game at Missouri. On the other hand, Pomeroy sees Vanderbilt having a 38 percent or better chance to win in 11 games, so if the Commodores legitimately start playing better, there are wins on the table.

Obviously, 14-17, 7-11 in the SEC isn’t going to get it done. But would, say, 18-13, 11-7? It very well might be enough. And it might be doable.

While we don’t like what we’ve seen so far this season, it’s still a bit too early to write off the season completely. Vanderbilt has little margin for error the rest of the way, but the postseason is still a possibility.