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The Morning Dish – Wednesday, March 1, 2017

March 1, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

One game is just one game, but sometimes in the course of the rather short college basketball season it makes all the difference.

As Selection Sunday 2017 nears, Vanderbilt down the stretch has become one of the most intriguing case studies of this season. The Commodores have heated up late, have a top-rated schedule and are highly recommended by pretty much every computer rating imaginable. They also have a record that screams mediocrity.

Vanderbilt had a golden opportunity on Tuesday, though, to pretty up that record in more ways than one. A win at Kentucky would’ve moved the Commodores to 17-13 overall and also been an undeniable name-brand quality win of the highest order, certain to make them an even hotter subject than they’ve been. Alas, Vandy couldn’t make an early 19-point lead hold up to the end, and the Wildcats emerged for a 73-67 win in the biggest rally in John Calipari’s time coaching there.

The Commodores led 25-6 in the first half, unleashing a barrage of three-pointers while Kentucky got off to a terrible start, again showing the lack of seasoning that makes it hard to count on the talented Wildcats in March. After UK closed within six by halftime, Vandy rebuilt the lead to double figures, but scoring machine Malik Monk heated up again and scored 20 of his 27 in the second half.

Instead of being 17-13, Vanderbilt is now 16-14, and if that doesn’t sound like a big difference, it could be all the difference in a team’s candidacy for an NCAA Tournament bid. Speaking more for the general public than the selection committee (who may well be mesmerized by the Commodores’ schedule strength so much that they nearly ignore the record, much like Georgia in 2001), the closer a team’s record is to .500, the harder it is to pitch them as an at-large team, especially one that had a 20-point loss to Missouri-yes, that Missouri-just over two weeks ago.

The other part of this is: no team in the 64-plus team era since 1985 has received an at-large bid with more than 14 losses, and Vanderbilt would have at least 15 on selection Sunday at its current pace. And there are plenty of good reasons why such teams don’t get at-large bids, because they rarely prove capable of going deep in the tournament (Syracuse last year was the first at-large team from a BCS conference seeded ninth or lower to get to the Final Four since 1986; in contrast, at-large teams seeded there from leagues outside that realm have done it four times since 2006).

The Commodores undoubtedly have played better as the season has gone on. That’s to be expected for a team with a first-year coach in Bryce Drew, and especially a team switching from a distinctly offense-oriented approach under former coach Kevin Stallings to a new coach still feeling his way with the roster but known for excellent defensive teams at Valparaiso. If you saw Vandy get pummeled by Middle Tennessee State back in December, you never would’ve guessed this team would just two months later have the toughness to win on the road at Florida and nearly win at Kentucky. It’s a team that 100% deserves credit for how it has improved to even get its way into the conversation.

At the same time, though, Vanderbilt to us still comes down to one number: 16-14. That’s a record over 30 games that is the definition of mediocrity, and the selection committee can certainly do better. The good news for the Commodores is they still have time to improve that record. The bad news is there isn’t much time left.

Side Dishes:

  • Purdue bulled past Indiana 86-75 (if you watched the game, there’s not many other ways to put it) and clinched the Big Ten regular season title. The Boilermakers pounded it inside time and time again, putting the Hoosiers front line in foul trouble. Caleb Swanigan posted a double-double and nearly doing so were both Dakota Mathias (19 points, seven boards) and Vince Edwards (15 points, seven rebounds, plus seven assists too).
  • Duke built a big lead early in the second half and then held on to top Florida State 75-70, splitting the teams’ two matchups this year. Frank Jackson was the difference, scoring 22 points for the Blue Devils.
  • Iowa State bombed away again and edged Oklahoma State 86-83 to remain in second place in the Big 12. The Cyclones hit 15 three-pointers and then held on after the Cowboys made a late charge in the final minute.
  • Maryland found the cure to what ails it: Rutgers. The Terrapins pulled away from the Scarlet Knights 79-59 to win on the road.
  • The Mountain West has had one wild season, but it sure is finishing on a fun note. Colorado State edged indomitable Wyoming 78-76 after Prentiss Nixon hit a three-pointer with five seconds left, answering after the Cowboys-who rallied from separate 16-point deficits in each half-had taken the lead on a three with 18 seconds left. The Rams now lead Nevada by one-half game in the standings, with those two set to square off for the title on Saturday. Also, Fresno State continues to play spoiler and won at Boise State 74-67, again insuring the Bulldogs are the team absolutely no one wants to play in the league tourney.
  • The Big South and Patriot League tourneys opened with first round games, with all four higher seeds winning at home. The closest game came in the Patriot, where No. 7 Loyola (Md.) had to rally to defeat 10 seed Lafayette 67-74.
  • Leagues continued to release their all-conference teams Tuesday. Among them: the Missouri Valley, where Illinois State guard Paris Lee is the Larry Bird Player of the Year; the Ohio Valley, where Belmont’s Evan Bradds repeated as player of the year, and the West Coast Conference, where Gonzaga All-American candidate Nigel Williams-Goss was named player of the year as well as the conference’s newcomer of the year.

Tonight’s Menu:

  • More conference tournament opens with quarterfinal games in the America East and Northeast at home sites and the first round of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Nashville. Most notably, top-seeded Vermont hosts 8 seed Maine in the America East, where the most interesting game is undoubtedly No. 4 New Hampshire hosting fifth-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County. Also in the NEC, No. 1 Mount St. Mary’s hosts Sacred Heart, 2 seed LIU has a tricky one with No. 7 Robert Morris, and defending champion Fairleigh Dickinson slid to the sixth seed and is at No. 3 Wagner in a rematch of last year’s title game.
  • An important SEC game between two notoriously up-tempo teams (or at least coaches) as Arkansas goes to Florida (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2).
  • Maybe the most important game of the year for Northwestern is this one as it hosts Michigan (7 p.m., Big Ten Network). The Wolverines have just one win away from home all year; if the Wildcats can’t win it’s not a good sign. Another very intriguing game is Michigan State at Illinois (9 p.m., Big Ten Network), as the suddenly warm Fighting Illini are making a late push and have a prime opportunity here.
  • Rhode Island has a very winnable road game at Saint Joseph’s; in fact, it’s a game the Rams can’t afford to lose.
  • An even bigger game in the Atlantic 10-and frankly the game of the night-is a showdown for first with VCU at Dayton (8 p.m., CBSSN).
  • If Wake Forest still holds NCAA Tournament hopes, it must find a way to beat Louisville at home on this night.
  • Kansas State is at TCU (9 p.m., ESPNU), with the Horned Frogs looking to sweep the Wildcats and the loser slipping further out of the NCAA tourney picture. At least, one would think…
  • Another important game for two teams on the NCAA fringe: Marquette goes to struggling Xavier (9 p.m., FS1), which still sports glitzy rating numbers but has been plundered by injuries.
  • Sliding USC is in can’t-afford-to-lose mode this weekend with the Washington schools coming to L.A., starting with Washington State tonight.
  • Finally, a tricky test in the Mountain West for Nevada which is at improved San Jose State and needs a win to stay tied with Colorado State.

Have an outstanding Wednesday.

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