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The NCAA Tournament's Worst Losses: Wichita State. Can Vandy follow Illinois State's lead?

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Vanderbilt and Wichita State are battling for a spot among the NCAA Tournament's field of 64. Here's how the Commodores can topple the Shockers.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt made it to the NCAA Tournament, but if the Commodores can't win on Tuesday night they'll be going home before the big dance really begins.

Vandy needs to beat a dangerous Wichita State team for the right to be included among the 64 teams that will battle on basketball's brightest stage. The winner of Tuesday night's First Four showdown will advance to a Thursday evening matchup with the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats in Providence, RI. The Commodores are a 2.5-point underdog against the regular season Missouri Valley Conference champions.

Tuesday's showdown in Dayton is a disappointing NCAA Tournament landing spot for two teams who each spent several weeks in the top 25 rankings this season season. Vandy climbed as high as No. 12 in the AP poll before a 3-7 stretch dropped the 'Dores to the bubble. Losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee had several bracketologists predicting an NIT finish for Kevin Stallings' team, but the Selection Committee ruled it had done enough to merit a spot in the First Four.

Wichita State peaked at No. 21 in the polls after a 12-game winning streak launched the Shockers to the top of the MVC standings. Losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa dropped them out of the rankings and towards a bubble spot of their own. WSU responded with a six-game winning streak, but a conference tournament semifinal loss to UNI relegated the mid-major powerhouse to a matchup with the Commodores in Dayton.

So how can Vanderbilt beat the Shockers? Here's the blueprint Illinois State laid out five weeks ago.

Wichita State (24-8, 16-2 Missouri Valley, ranked No. 12 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)

Worst Loss: at Illinois State (18-14. 12-6 MVC, No. 120 KenPom, No. 114 CBS RPI), 53-58
Other Losses: vs. Northern Iowa (twice), at Seton Hall, vs. Iowa, vs. USC, at Tulsa, vs. Alabama

The good news is that Vanderbilt beat the only common opponent it shares with the Shockers; Wichita State lost to Alabama way back in November. However, WSU doesn't have many other disappointing defeats on its resume. The team's worst loss came more recently when it dropped a five-point decision to Illinois State on February 6.

The Shockers led by as many as 16 points in the second half before the Redbirds used a 23-4 run to take their first lead of the game with 9:33 to play. Wichita State trailed by a single point with three minutes left, but the two teams dove into an extended dry spell where they exchanged missed shots and spent the final 187 seconds without a field goal. In the end, Illinois State's ability to make clutch free throws helped them escape with a five-point win despite a shot chart that looked like a drunken pirate's treasure map.

Point of emphasis: Shutting down Wichita State's stars. It's easier said than done, but the Redbirds held the Shockers' all-conference duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to a combined 17 points on 21 shots. That included a 2-13 mark from behind the three-point line. Wichita State's starters shot an icy 16.7 percent from long range and 34 percent overall in the upset loss.

Vanderbilt can respond to this challenge. The 'Dores have held opponents to just 38.6 percent shooting this winter. That's good for the seventh-best defense in the nation -- albeit a ranking one spot behind the Shockers.

Keys to the Game:

  • Prevent offensive rebounds. Nothing has been more frustrating for Vanderbilt than the rally-killing points that have come as a result of opponents' offensive rebounds. Illinois State, however, allowed only seven Shocker offensive boards back in February -- only 20 percent of the team's misses Wichita State managed just two second chance points in defeat.

  • Draw fouls inside. One of the effects of Wichita State's undersized roster is the team's penchant for drawing whistles -- they rank just 239th in the country in terms of fouls per game. The Shockers don't have anyone with the size to match up with Damian Jones, and Jones's athleticism makes him similarly difficult to cover away from the basket as well. If Vanderbilt can get the ball in his hands and give him the space to attack the rim, he has the tools to push the 'Dores into the bonus early in each half.

  • Make your damn free throws. The logical extension to point No. 2. One of the most painful exchanges in Vanderbilt's loss to Tennessee came minutes before Wade Baldwin's game-tying layup left his hand as the red lights lit. With 1:45 to play and UT leading 60-59, Armani Moore fouled Damian Jones, giving the Commodore center a one-and-one at the free throw line. Jones missed the first and the Moore countered with a three-pointer to take a four-point lead and put the 'Dores on the ropes.

    Vanderbilt didn't lose solely because of one missed free throw, but Jones's front-end miss turned a scoring opportunity into a wasted possession. It was a crucial mistake at a time where the Commodores has almost no room for error. Wichita State is tough, and I'll bet Vandy will be a similarly perilous situation at some point on Tuesday. These 'Dores can't afford any self-inflicted damage in the NCAA Tournament.