It is easy to look at Vanderbilt’s 6-4 start to the 2021-22 season and think, “here we go again.”
Slow starts have been a feature for Vanderbilt basketball over the last few years. Last year’s team only played six games prior to the SEC opener, but went 4-2 in those games. The 2019-20 team went 8-5; 2018-19 went 9-3 (but of course, we remember what happened after that...) The 2017-18 team was 5-7; the 2016-17 team was 6-6. Incredibly, you have to go all the way back to 2010-11 to find at Vanderbilt team that got through the nonconference portion of the schedule with fewer than three losses.
Of course, that Vanderbilt has made the NCAA Tournament three times since then should tell you a bit about how important the nonconference schedule is. Yes, it’s possible to rally from a rough stretch in nonconference play, and there are some weird parallels with that 2016-17 team (which started the season 6-6 with a 7-footer dealing with a foot injury; sound familiar?) — but it’s important not to dig yourself too big of a hole to climb out of.
And that’s where we come to the finale of nonconference play. Vanderbilt opens the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii on Wednesday night, where they’ll close out the nonconference schedule with three games. Vanderbilt currently ranks 99th in the NET rankings, which isn’t good, and the Commodores did pick up what’s currently considered a Quad 4 loss (to Temple at home) as well as a couple of Quad 2 losses (at SMU and vs. VCU.) In other words, the margin for error’s already pretty slim. Win this tournament, or go 2-1, and Vanderbilt might be able to make up for it in SEC play.
Wednesday: at Hawaii (11:00 PM CT)
In a word, Hawaii is bad: the Rainbows rank 215 in NET and 220 in KenPom. They’re 4-3 on the season, but two of their wins came against non-Division I outfits Hawaii-Hilo and Hawaii Pacific. In other words, don’t lose this game. And that becomes even more important when you consider...
Thursday: vs. BYU or South Florida
Yeah, this difference is pretty stark. Beat Hawaii on Wednesday night, and Vanderbilt in all likelihood gets a shot at BYU, currently 9-2, ranked 25 in NET and 24 in KenPom. In other words, a free shot at a Quad 1 win, and a game that won’t hurt Vanderbilt much if they lose. If Vanderbilt were to lose to Hawaii, though, it probably gets South Florida — 262 in NET, 235 in KenPom, and a game that can only hurt Vanderbilt.
Saturday: one of Liberty, Northern Iowa, Wyoming, or Stanford
So, any one of these teams would be beatable — the best team in this group according to KenPom is Stanford, who’s ranked 90th — but weirdly one of these teams, at least right now, would mean a lot more in terms of the NET ranking. Wyoming, currently 9-1 on the season, is ranked 19th in the NET. The other three — Stanford (127), Liberty (128), and Northern Iowa (162) — are mediocre in that ranking, and I’m skeptical that Wyoming would actually count as a Quad 1 win once March rolls around, but in any case, none of these teams are ones that Vanderbilt should lose to if it wants to have any hope to play in the postseason.