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Vanderbilt Should Be In the NCAA Tournament

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If the committee values what it says it values, there is no case to be made against the Commodores.

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

Today, ESPN’s Bubble Watch upgraded Vanderbilt to “Should Be In.” For those unfamiliar, this basically means that if Vanderbilt wins the games it should (read: beats Texas A&M on Thursday), it will make the NCAA Tournament. Joe Lunardi has Vanderbilt as an 11-seed, not only making the tournament, but avoiding the First Four in Dayton.

Read comments sections, and this is controversial with some fans. After all, Vanderbilt has 14 losses! No team has ever gotten in the tournament with more losses than that! And they lost to Missouri! Read more closely, though, and the case against Vanderbilt ends there. Vanderbilt has 14 losses, and Vanderbilt lost to Missouri. That’s it.

Vanderbilt also is 44th in the RPI. They played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and they played one of the country’s most difficult non-conference schedules. Look at it again: the Commodores played four teams that won their conference (Bucknell, Belmont, Middle Tennessee, and Dayton), with two of those games being on the road. In addition, Vanderbilt played four additional teams out of conference that will likely make the tournament (Marquette, Butler, Minnesota, and Iowa State), with three of those games on neutral courts.

And Vanderbilt didn't just play good teams, they beat good teams, with five wins against the RPI top 50. The Commodores swept Florida, won at Arkansas, and beat South Carolina and Iowa State. So no, those aren’t cheap wins against teams with Inflated RPI numbers, either: all five of those teams appear to be safely in the NCAA Tournament.

What’s more, advanced metrics like KenPom like Vanderbilt as well: Vanderbilt currently ranks 40th in KenPom, just one spot behind Arkansas (who, again, everyone agrees is a tournament team.) And the Commodores’ resume looks good when stacked up against other bubble teams. Rhode Island is 51 in KenPom and has just two top 50 wins — neither of which is as good as Vanderbilt’s two wins over Florida alone — and also lost to Fordham at home, which is worse than losing at Missouri. Illinois State’s profile consists of a win over Wichita State and a lot of wins against subpar competition. Kansas State has some nice wins but also has worse RPI and SOS numbers than Vanderbilt (though KenPom has them 32nd.) Illinois beat Michigan at home and swept Northwestern; they’re also 68th in KenPom (and have 13 losses overall, or one fewer than Vanderbilt’s allegedly unacceptable number.) MTSU, if they’re in the at-large pool, has two top 50 wins all year (the fact that one of them was against us is a bit inconvenient.)

Particularly with the mid-majors, there will be a sympathetic case made for them that they just can’t get as many opportunities for good wins because their conferences suck and because power conference teams won’t schedule them (or at least they won't schedule them on the mid-major’s terms, meaning the mid-major gets a return game at home.) But in Vanderbilt’s case, that argument comes with the minor inconvenience that Vanderbilt scheduled games at Middle Tennessee and Dayton. One good way for the committee to ensure that fewer of those games are played in the future would be to punish Vanderbilt for playing at MTSU — because the only knock against Vanderbilt is that they have a lot of losses, and that’s precisely because they didn't shy away from tough non-conference games.

In other words, Vanderbilt’s case to make the tournament essentially requires the committee to balance its normal practices and procedures against a rather arbitrary number of losses that some people consider to be “too many.” But in the past, seemingly every year the committee has let in a couple of power conference teams that played a lot of games against good teams and won a few of them, while piling up a lot of losses. That sounds a lot like Vanderbilt, and at this point I will be more surprised than not if Vanderbilt is left out of the tournament.