The last we saw of Vanderbilt this season is bound to leave a sour taste in the mouths of not just its fans, but virtually everyone who follows college basketball and expected so much of the Commodores this year.
Just the same, it should also leave NCAA Tournament selection committee members with a serious case of bitter beer face, too.
Vanderbilt’s 70-50 loss to Wichita State in a play-in game in Dayton (the “First Four”, you’ll be reminded) was not quite as ugly as the final score indicated, but it was close. The Commodores never led in the second half, fell behind by 11 points but crawled back within two, only to finish the game on the wrong end of a 20-2 run over the final 7 1/2 minutes. The meltdown was punctuated with three minutes left when coach Kevin Stallings picked up a technical foul, and Vandy finished the season with a 19-14 record well below expectations when the season began.
As the game wound down and immediately after, commentary online piled on about the Commodores not deserving their at-large bid. Of course, this is the part where Tuesday night’s result comes with a disclaimer: win or lose, NCAA Tournament results alone do not automatically justify or rebuke a team’s spot in the field.
It is no different with this game, just the same as UCLA’s wins last year did not justify the Bruins’ bid. The draw influences who advances in so many ways, and indeed Wichita State-at least a 6-7 seed when healthy, though its hard resume didn’t show that due to an early-season injury to All-American guard Fred VanVleet-was not an easy one.
And even as much as we don’t believe Vanderbilt belonged in the field, we wouldn’t be surprised at all to see teams similar to the Commodores win a game, maybe two in the tourney. Almost every single year a criticized selection or two does just that, usually by working a favorable draw for a time before exiting.
And yet, the criticisms are right on. Vanderbilt’s early exit from the postseason was one easy to foresee coming into the tourney, just as the eventual fates of teams like Michigan and Pittsburgh almost certainly are.
Vanderbilt entered the tourney with a profile that was middling at best in every way. Despite playing 16 home games (plus a 17th on a “neutral” court in the SEC tournament in their home city) and in all 20 of 33 games at home or neutral sites, Vandy was 7-10 vs. the RPI top 100 and 5-11 in road/neutral games. It also had plenty of those bad losses a team like Monmouth got hammered for, losing to Arkansas and Mississippi State away and Tennessee at a neutral site.
Most telling was a 2-7 mark against the RPI top 50, because it told us that, in a more than fair number of chances against NCAA tourney at-large caliber teams (including three at home plus another at a neutral site), the Commodores lost 78% of the time when they played such games.
Given all of this, exactly how did the selection committee think Vanderbilt would perform in the NCAA Tournament? Did they somehow expect it would be different from what ample opportunities in the regular season displayed? If one was watching the games-not relying on computers, not going by the faulty eye test or how many NBA draft picks a team is supposed to have-this is exactly what the Commodores were all year.
Much like Texas last year-a 3-12 record vs. the RPI top 50, first-round exit-the selection committee chose to ignore the evidence: not only was there next to nothing in Vanderbilt’s season that indicated a team capable of a run deep in the NCAA Tournament, there was considerable evidence showing the opposite.
It might be different if there was history to support teams like Vandy, emerging from being beaten down in tough conferences to go deep in the postseason, but as we’ve noted multiple times in these spaces, there is next to none. Not since 1986 has a team from a BCS (or “Power 5”, or whatever you want to call it) league made it to the Final Four with an at-large bid seeded ninth or lower.
Meanwhile, three times since 2006 (George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011, Wichita State in 2013) have conferences from outside that realm performed the feat, which shows it can be done. Just not by mediocre teams from the Big Football conferences.
Since 1999, five of the six at-large teams seeded ninth or lower to reach the Elite Eight have come from non-BCS conferences. Thirteen of the 26 such at-large teams to reach the Sweet 16 were from conferences outside the BCS, and while that sounds like a case for equal achievement, the reality is BCS conferences hold a 95-76 advantage in at-large bids in that category from 1999-2015.
In virtually every conceivable historic measure, if one is looking for teams capable of going deep in the NCAA Tournament-and we’re constantly told this is what the committee is charged with-then the last at-large bids should be going more to teams like Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s or Valparaiso (or even South Carolina, which was at least 8-6 vs. the top 100) and less to teams like Vanderbilt. That teams such as the former don’t get nine, 10, 12 chances at top 50 opponents is no reason in the least to exclude them, especially when in their limited opportunities they’ve proven successful (and when those opportunities are so limited by collusion by the schools with the most money).
St. Bonaventure was 3-2 against the top 50, 7-5 against the top 100. Monmouth went 3-4 against the top 100 despite playing six of those seven games away from home. St. Mary’s went 6-3 against the top 100, Valparaiso 4-2. Was there evidence out there that showed these teams could beat good teams when they got the chance? You bet there was.
We’re not even getting into the fact that teams like Monmouth or St. Bonaventure would add more spice to the tourney than ones that get an at-large bid for a 19-13 regular season. That is not part of the selection criteria nor should it be. At the same time, if it’s what the fans want-and it is-then that should be all the motivation committee members need to develop far more depth of analysis and perspective on these teams’ seasons than they chose to this year and last year.
Where games are played matters. Winning percentage against top 50 and top 100 teams matters-not just the sheer number of such wins. Considering we are repeatedly told how tough being on the selection committee is and how much time it consumes, fans and especially the affected teams have the right to expect the committee to have an understanding of these things.
Clearly there was none of that this year with teams like Monmouth, St. Bonaventure and the like. There was very little with Vanderbilt, either. And as a result, this year’s committee may well have kept out two or three teams-or more-capable of being the next George Mason.