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How Does Vanderbilt Get to the NCAA Tournament?

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Yeah, this season feels like a disappointment. Yet Vanderbilt can still turn things around and make the NCAA Tournament. We explore how that might happen.

Be aware, though, that one of the last few teams in the 2015 tournament fired its coach.
Be aware, though, that one of the last few teams in the 2015 tournament fired its coach.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A season that started with Vanderbilt ranked 18th in the country seems like it's gone off the rails over the last month or so.  The Commodores currently sit at 11-8, 3-4 in the SEC, and there seems to be a prevailing sense that this team is bound for the NIT.

Or so we think.

Part of the issue is that many fans and commentators expect Vanderbilt to continue losing whenever they play a good team.  While there have been some losses that weren't particularly close, though, many of the losses could have gone either way.  Four of the losses were in road games against top 25 teams (Baylor, Purdue, South Carolina, Kentucky); another one came on a neutral court against a top 10 team (Kansas.)  Two home losses -- against Dayton and LSU -- came without Luke Kornet (as did the Purdue loss.)  And while Arkansas is a sub-.500 team, as we'll see, NCAA Tournament teams can drop a handful of games like that.

And part of the issue, it seems to me, is confusion about what constitutes an NCAA Tournament team.  These were the resumes of the last few at-large teams in the 2015 NCAA Tournament field (all numbers are courtesy of espn.com):

  • Dayton: 25-8 (.758 pct.), 32 RPI, 113 SOS, 1-2 vs. Top 25, 1-3 vs. Top 50, 7-7 vs. Top 100, 8-4 last 12
  • Boise State: 23-8 (.742 pct.), 44 RPI, 130 SOS, 0-1 vs. Top 25, 3-3 vs. Top 50, 4-5 vs. Top 100, 10-2 last 12
  • Ole Miss: 20-12 (.625 pct.), 57 RPI, 49 SOS, 1-2 vs. Top 25, 3-5 vs. Top 50, 8-8 vs. Top 100, 7-5 last 12
  • BYU: 23-9 (.719 pct.), 38 RPI, 75 SOS, 1-3 vs. Top 25, 1-4 vs. Top 50, 4-6 vs. Top 100, 10-2 last 12
  • Texas: 20-13 (.606 pct.), 42 RPI, 15 SOS, 2-10 vs. Top 25, 3-12 vs. Top 50, 8-13 vs. Top 100, 6-6 last 12
  • UCLA: 20-13 (.606 pct.), 49 RPI, 29 SOS, 1-7 vs. Top 25, 2-8 vs. Top 50, 5-10 vs. Top 100, 8-4 last 12

You can go back to previous year, but it's generally the same story: a mixture of mid-majors racking up wins against questionable competition, and power conference teams with mediocre records against tough schedules.

At this writing, Vanderbilt has an RPI of 64 and an SOS of 23 (courtesy of rpiforecast.com), and although the Commodores haven't won a single game against a team in the RPI top 50, they also only have one loss that could be construed as bad, RPI-wise (to Arkansas.)

But there are 12 games remaining in the regular season.  Here is Vanderbilt's remaining schedule:

Opponent RPI KenPom Win %
Florida 19 62%
at Texas 17 37%
Texas A&M 8 47%
at Ole Miss 107 61%
Missouri 162 92%
at Auburn 84 72%
at Mississippi St. 194 59%
Georgia 62 80%
at Florida 19 31%
Kentucky 16 58%
Tennessee 80 79%
at Texas A&M 8 20%

Vanderbilt should be favored to win eight of their remaining 12 regular-season games, and they'll be a narrow underdog against Texas A&M at home.  I used RPI Forecast's Wizard tool to simulate what Vanderbilt's tournament profile might look like if they finish the regular season 9-3, with the three losses coming at Texas, Florida, and Texas A&M: the Wizard predicts that Vanderbilt would have a 20-11 record, RPI of 28, and SOS of 26.  Vanderbilt would have, in all likelihood, three wins against the RPI top 50.

Look back at the resumes of the last few teams in 2015.  In all likelihood, Vanderbilt would be an NCAA Tournament team in that scenario.  For fun, I threw in an SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State, which would drop Vandy's RPI to 41 and SOS to 32.  So, the Commodores are probably a tournament team in that scenario.

Now, let's get a little more pessimistic: we'll change the home win over Texas A&M to a loss.  The record is now 19-12, the SOS is 26... but now, Vanderbilt has an RPI of 44 and only two quality wins.  That's a bit more sketchy.  In this scenario, a SECT loss to Auburn drops the RPI to 48.  A SECT win over Auburn followed by a loss to Florida keeps the RPI at 44.  That team would wind up with a profile similar to UCLA above: squarely on the bubble, but they might end up on the right side of it as UCLA did.

What about an even more pessimistic scenario?  Let's say that Vandy goes 7-5, with the fifth loss coming against Kentucky.  The record is now 18-13, and the RPI drops to 55, with only one win against the RPI top 50.  That's... probably not an NCAA Tournament team.  A single win in the SEC Tournament probably wouldn't cut it, either.  Two wins (I'm using Auburn and Florida in the sim) followed by a semifinal loss (to Texas A&M) bumps the RPI to 47 with a 20-14 record... maybe.  A run to the SEC Tournament finals, with a loss to Kentucky in the finals, would move the RPI to 42 and SOS to 16, and add a couple of quality wins.

Finally, going 6-6 down the stretch would mean the record is 17-14, and the RPI is 73.  That's not going to cut it.

So to answer the question, what does Vanderbilt have to do to make the NCAA Tournament?  Almost every scenario listed above says 20 wins is the goal.  Going 9-3 or better in the remaining regular season games makes Vanderbilt something close to a lock.  8-4, and the Commodores probably need to just avoid taking a bad loss in their first game of the SEC Tournament.  At 7-5, Vanderbilt would need to do some damage in the SEC Tournament to have a chance.  At 6-6 or worse, Vanderbilt would go into the SEC Tournament needing to win the automatic bid.

It's easy to think that, at 11-8, Vanderbilt's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament are close to done -- but then, UCLA sat at 11-9 at one point last year and wound up rallying to get to the tournament.  So it can be done.  Now it's a matter of going out and winning some basketball games.