During Saturday’s postgame press conference after the Vanderbilt Commodores beat South Carolina, Bryce Drew was asked by a reporter whether Vanderbilt had a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
A few weeks ago, this would have seemed like a weird question. Even now, Vanderbilt, with a 14-13 overall record and a 7-7 SEC record, doesn’t appear on paper like a team that should be drawing any consideration for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. And yet... maybe they are? The Bracket Matrix currently has Vanderbilt in the Next Four Out, with seven bracketologists including the Commodores in the bracket. (Importantly, all seven of those came after the Commodores’ win over South Carolina.) SB Nation’s own Chris Dobbertean has the Commodores in his “also considered” bucket (whatever that means) in this morning’s bracket. And the Commodores got a mention in ESPN’s Bubble Watch today, as well.
Here’s why Vanderbilt is suddenly getting a look: the Commodores’ nonconference schedule was ridiculous. We knew that, but the RPI confirms it (per ESPN): Vanderbilt played the #1 nonconference SOS in the country, and currently has the #3 overall SOS. If you plug Vanderbilt’s remaining regular season schedule (at Tennessee, Mississippi State, at Kentucky, and Florida) into the RPI Wizard, Vanderbilt is projected to finish the regular seaosn with the #1 SOS in the country. (Obviously, the SEC Tournament isn’t accounted for since we don’t know who the Commodores would play.)
In addition to all of that, Vanderbilt has an RPI of 48 — which isn’t great, but it’s pretty solid for a team with a 14-13 record — and the Commodores have a 4-7 record against the RPI Top 50, with wins at Florida, at Arkansas, and over South Carolina and Iowa State at home. All of those except Iowa State are in the top 50 with plenty of room to spare, and the Commodores’ win at Florida might be the single most impressive win for any bubble team. (Depending on whether you think Iowa State’s on the bubble itself, of course: the Cyclones’ win at Kansas might be better. So, too, is Kansas State’s win at Baylor.)
In any case, the general consensus is that Vanderbilt would not be in the NCAA Tournament if the field were selected today. But the Commodores have a chance to bolster their resume. Tennessee, whom the Commodores play on Wednesday in Knoxville, is currently 49th in the RPI. And Vanderbilt has a pair of chances at a marquee win in the final week of the regular season, going to Rupp Arena on February 28 before hosting Florida in the regular season finale on March 4.
The RPI Wizard projects that if Vanderbilt were to split their remaining four games, they’d have an RPI of 50. They might add a quality win if they do that, but at 16-15 with an RPI of 50, they’d pretty clearly need to do some work in the SEC Tournament. But if the Commodores win three of their last four, they’d enter the SEC Tournament with a 17-14 record and, per the RPI Wizard, an RPI of about 38. That’s good, and they’d also add at least one top 50 win (against either Kentucky or Florida) if they did that. In that situation, the Commodores would be something like the 6-seed in the SEC Tournament and would probably just need to win their first game.
And if the Commodores win out the rest of the regular season? They’d be 18-13 with an RPI of 32, and a win in Rupp Arena (and a season sweep of Florida) on their resume. That’s a damn 7-seed.
This doesn’t sound all that realistic as inconsistent as the Commodores have been, but an at-large bid is still on the table. And it’s more realistic than you were probably thinking.