Vanderbilt rallied to four wins in its final five games to earn a spot on the bright side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. However, the Commodores still have to take care of business at the SEC Tournament to ensure their spot in the big dance.
The combination of a relatively weak league and a favorable draw will give Kevin Stallings the opportunity to secure an 18th season in Nashville with an SEC title. Vandy is four wins from raising another banner in Memorial Gym, and while the 'Dores won't draw any top 15 matchups along the way, games against a desperate LSU and top 20 programs Kentucky and Texas A&M may stand in their path. So what four-day lineup would benefit Vanderbilt the most?
Let's take a look. Here's what the SECT bracket looks like:
Thursday, March 10th
The Potential Opponents: No. 13 Auburn and No. 12 Tennessee
Who Vanderbilt wants to play: Auburn
Who Vanderbilt will likely play: Tennessee
Neither team posed much of a threat to the Commodores this winter, but Auburn provided the team's largest conference win of the season -- a 86-57 win that looked like a junior varsity scrimmage for long stretches. Tennessee, on the other hand, lost its two games to Vandy by an average of 15.5 points. Vanderbilt will be a significant favorite against either team, but the Volunteers will roll into Nashville with a few creamsicle-clad fans in tow -- maybe not enough to turn Bridgestone Arena into a hostile environment, but enough to be heard. Factor that in with any weird rivalry-game juju that comes with a Vandy-UT matchup in any sport, and we'll hope for the Tigers to snap their three-game losing streak.
Friday, March 11th
The Potential Opponents: No. 4 LSU
Who Vanderbilt wants to play: LSU
Who Vanderbilt will likely play: LSU
There's no mystery here - a win on Thursday sets Vandy up for a return engagement against the fourth-seeded Tigers. We were treated to a two-hour Ben Simmons infomercial the last time these teams played, but for good reason; he scored 36 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in his first-ever SEC game. ESPN hasn't toned down its Simmons hype despite LSU's disappointing season. If the Commodores make it to Friday's game, expect the announce team to ignore their existence and opine on how sad they would be if Simmons failed to make it to the big dance.
LSU will be a dangerous opponent because its NCAA Tournament hopes are currently on life support. The Tigers are currently ranked 90th in the RPI, but wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M have them clinging to a spot in Joe Lunardi's "Next Four Out." Every game from here on out, with the possible exception of an SEC Tournament final, will be a win-or-go-home scenario. LSU is a wounded animal right now, and a desperate Tiger team proved it has the firepower to overcome its shoddy defense in a 96-91 win over Florida last week. If Vanderbilt can't hit its shots early and often, the Commodores could wind up 0-2 against the Simmons hype train.
Saturday, March 14th
The Potential Opponents: No. 1 Texas A&M, No. 8 Florida, No. 9 Arkansas
Who Vanderbilt wants to play: Anyone but Arkansas
Who Vanderbilt will likely play: Texas A&M
Florida is playing for its NCAA Tournament life. Texas A&M is playing for seeding. Arkansas doesn't have the same kind of stakes at hand, but the Razorbacks are Kevin Stallings' basketball anathema. Beating the Razorbacks would do nothing for Vandy's profile, but losing to them could be enough to drop the Commodores down a seeding line.
The Gators won't provide much of a boost either, and they'll be in a similar position as LSU is during tournament play. However, Florida has been spiraling out of control late in the season; a cupcake matchup against hopeless Missouri was the only thing to stop a four-game losing streak that pushed UF from No. 8/9 seed to the ugly side of the NCAAT bubble. At this point, a matchup with the Gators would be preferable to whatever Commodore voodoo the Razorbacks would bring to Bridgestone Arena.
That leaves one obvious choice for a quarterfinal showdown -- the rubber match with Texas A&M. The Aggies evened up the 2016 record with Vandy behind a dominant home win last week, but the Commodores should fare better on a neutral court without the charming SEC referees who treat Damian Jones with the same prejudice a bear gives salmon. Vanderbilt rocked A&M the last time these teams met in Nashville. A properly-motivated Vandy team could punch its ticket to the SEC final with a similar performance.
Sunday, March 15th
The Potential Opponents: Literally every other SEC team we've failed to mention but Missouri.
Who Vanderbilt wants to play: Kentucky
Who Vanderbilt will likely play: Kentucky
The bottom half of the bracket is awash in teams that won't do much for Vanderbilt's potential NCAA Tournament seed. South Carolina would present the chance for a quality win, but the Gamecocks have limped to the finish line in 2016 and wouldn't provide the kind of resume boost that a second victory over No. 16 Kentucky would produce. The Wildcats have gotten strong returns from freshman big man Skal Labissiere in the last week. Keeping up that pace would give the 'Cats a potential answer to Vandy's big advantage in the frontcourt -- although UK will still need to find an answer to the offensive woes that led to a 74-62 loss the last time it came to Nashville.
Plus, the last time Vanderbilt and Kentucky met with an SEC Championship on the line, we got this image:
...which was pretty neat.
So, Vanderbilt's ideal path to an SEC title and a big boost in NCAA Tournament seeding looks like this: Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Kentucky. That would give the Commodores two wins over ranked opponents while putting a three-month moratorium on ESPN's Ben Simmons hype along the way. It would also put Kevin Stallings' team at 23-12 headed into an NCAAT auto bid with a 4-6 record against RPI Top 25 teams. It may be a stretch, especially if other teams from the lower half of the top 25 finish strongly, but that's the recipe for a possible six-seed and a much more palatable blueprint for a Sweet Sixteen berth.