Friday Morning Roundup

I have to chuckle just a little bit. After listening to the post-game comments, it became evident that the situation in this rivalry has changed 180 degrees in the last 40 years. Back in the mid-1960's when Vanderbilt was the most exciting team in the SEC, the Commodores played race horse basketball, attempting the fast break on every possession, playing various pressing defenses, and averaging about 85 points per game (pre-shot clock and three-point shot).

Meanwhile, Tennessee was the patient, deliberate team limiting possessions, playing excellent team defense, and holding opponents to under 60 points per game.
 
The kicker to this reversal was when our coaching staff and players let it be known that they found it a bid odd that Tennessee attempted 32 free throws to Vandy's five. Tennessee was the team playing aggressively, and they actually took more three-point shots. So why did Vandy get whistled for many more fouls, while Tennessee didn't?
 
Let's hop in our time-travel machine and go back to the January 1965 Vanderbilt-Tennessee game at Memorial Gymnasium. Tennessee and Vanderbilt were the two top teams in the league. The Vols, led by A.W. Davis, Ron Widby, Red Robbins, and the big brute Howard Bayne gave Coach Ray Mears a group of hard-nosed, athletic players; it is no stretch to call the 1965 edition of the Big Orange the most athletic team in the SEC that year.  The Vols played defense out of their 1-3-1 zone about as competently as any team could. Their patient offense produced several high percentage shot opportunities and led to many offensive rebounds.
 
Meanwhile, Coach Roy Skinner's Commodores relied on a 2-2-1 zone press and a fast breaking offense with an excellent low post attack and complimentary excellent outside game. Vandy gambled on defense going for steals and trying to disrupt the opponents' rhythm.  They committed more turnovers and sometimes hurried their shots, but they also had a tendency to score points in droves and put a team away quickly.
 
On that January 1965 night, The Commodores pressed for over 35 minutes and in all that time, they never once were called for a personal foul while using the press. Mears was livid, blasting the officials in his post-game interview. He saw the foul discrepancy, and he couldn't believe how many more free tosses Vandy received compared to his team.
 
We now return to 2006. I have said this before in prior columns and in postings. The aggressive team gets the benefit of the doubt from the officials, while the passive team gets caught more often. It is plain psychology. When a team is forcing the issue, the referees cannot help but see their actions in a different light. Let's compare it to baseball. Whenever you see a pitcher who makes his living hitting the outside corner at the knees, like Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux, the men in blue will "give" him an extra few inches outside the real strike zone. If Nolan Ryan even touched the corner or threw knee high, he had no chance of getting those pitches called strikes. The umpires would not let a flamethrower have that call.
 
It's the same way in basketball. Vanderbilt is not going to get the benefit of the doubt with fouls as long as they continue to play a passive style of ball. Tennessee will continue to press and make contact, and the officials will give them some leeway. It has always been that way in college basketball since team began to use the press as a full-time defense. Look at UCLA during the Wooden years, Marquette during the McGuire years, Cincinnati during the Jucker years, and UNLV during the Tarkanian years as examples. These four powers pressed teams out of the gym, and their opponents' coaches and players complained game after game about the lack of calls. It's the nature of the beast. Get used to it; it will continue. 
 
Vanderbilt Vs. Georgia
 
It is not too early to say this is a must-win game for the Gold Men. A loss at home to the Bulldogs would more than likely doom the Commodores to a sixth place finish in the SEC East. A win won't guarantee a complete recovery, but it is mandatory at this point. The Bulldogs have failed to score at a pace of a point per minute in their last two trips to Nashville. Don't expect a three-peat tomorrow; Georgia is starting to gel and could be ready to pull a surprise.  I expect a close, hard-fought game that goes to the wire.  It may come down to hitting the key baskets once the clock begins to tick in tenths of a second.  It would be nice to have another Barry Goheen or Steve Grant to terrorize the Bulldogs for a third time at Magical Memorial.
 
For Vanderbilt to win, they must create more offense off transition. This team just cannot score efficiently and consistently in the SEC out of its half-court set. A couple of scoring droughts each game have been nearly impossible to overcome without a reliable hurry-up attack. While defense can overcome these long lapses, this team has shown a weakness against opponents who use dribble penetration from the top of the key. Also, there have been games where opposing big men have played volleyball on the backboards, while Vandy was getting one shot per possession.
 
Add to this the fact that Florida and Tennessee have exposed additional chinks in the armor. When Mario Moore is on the bench, Vandy can be pressured into making costly turnovers and be beaten down the floor for easy baskets.
 
What is the remedy?  There is no magic elixir for this team. The most correctable part is how the half-court offense can be run. DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell absolutely must get more touches inside the paint. Relying on Moore, Shan Foster, Alex Gordon, and Dan Cage to take a combined 20-25 perimeter shots a game without a more dominating inside game is not going to win in this league on a consistent basis. The ‘Dores need to get open shots by having the ball passed outside after the defense has collapsed inside. Foster and Cage could be bigger weapons if the ball came to them from the inside for all of their three-point attempts. They need to shoot their open three-pointers after squaring up and getting the ball from the post.  Vanderbilt established itself as the top three-point shooting team this way. Barry Booker, Barry Goheen, Derrick Wilcox, and Scott Draud earned the collective nickname "The Bomb Squad" by shooting their long-range jumpers after squaring up to the basket and receiving the ball from the inside.
 
The sun is shining, and it's time for the black and gold to make hay. The next three games must all be wins. Vanderbilt must dispose of Georgia, Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), and Kentucky to get back on the good side of the NCAA tournament bubble. At 6-4, the team has a realistic shot at 9-7. At 5-5, the Commodores would have to sweep the Florida and LSU home games and win at least two on the road between Georgia, Ole Miss, and South Carolina. At 4-6, you can make plans for the NIT. At 3-7, even the NIT goes out the window.
 
Conference by Conference Update
 
Two weeks have passed since we last looked at the conference races. It is still a bit early to make this anything more than speculation, but trends are developing. Many of the conference races are getting more interesting as each game is played. The selection committee will face its toughest task yet.
 
RPI ratings are not the official ones released by the NCAA, as they are five days old.  These come from a service that is very accurate at simulating the real RPI.
 
Records are through games of Wednesday, February 1.
 
America East: 1 bid
 
Albany 8-2/13-8 and Binghamton 6-2/9-10 continue to set the pace this year, but Vermont 5-4/9-10 is hanging in there. Albany has been selected to play at Virginia Commonwealth in the bracket buster, but the Great Danes have no chance of garnering an at-large bid. Binghamton has the advantage of hosting the first three rounds of the A-East Tourney, and if they make it to the finals, they could host the title game if they are the highest remaining seed. This continues to be a league where teams struggle to hit 40% of their shots, so the best rebounding team could emerge as the representative. In that case, Vermont is the team to beat.
 
Atlantic Coast: 5, 6, or 7 bids
 
Duke 8-0/20-1 is already in and could get the play-in winner. North Carolina State 6-2/17-4 is close to a lock. After that, seven teams are still fighting it out for positioning. Maryland 4-2/14-5, Miami 5-3/13-8, Boston College 4-4/16-5, Florida State 4-4/13-5, Virginia 4-4/10-8, North Carolina 3-3/12-5, and Clemson 3-5/14-7 are the contenders. The Terps, Eagles, and Tar Heels are most likely to go. Historically, any ACC team with a winning conference record gets a bid.  One team could fail to repeat history this year.
 
Atlantic Sun: 1 bid
 
Chances are decent that at least one Nashville school will get a bid to the Big Dance. Lipscomb 9-3/13-7 and Belmont 8-4/10-9 are both capable of winning three games in three days at the A-Sun Tournament. Of course, East Tennessee 9-4/12-8 must be considered a strong contender, as they host the tourney this year. The Buccaneers lead the conference in scoring margin, field goal percentage defense, and steals. Its' too early to count out Kennesaw State 9-4/11-11 or Gardner-Webb 8-5/11-9, but I give the edge to ETSU with the Bisons and Bruins right there.
 
Atlantic 10: 2 bids
 
Three teams continue to remain in the top 50 of the simulated RPI. George Washington 6-0/16-1 is close to a lock now that they have cracked the top 10. Xavier 4-2/13-4 and Temple 5-3/12-7 will fight it out for the second bid. If the tourney is won by someone else, Xavier and Temple could both get the shaft. Keep an eye on St. Louis 5-3/11-9 and St. Joe's 3-5/9-9. They are both better than their records indicate.
 
Big East: 8 or even 9 bids
 
Last year, I wrote a story about how Vanderbilt might prosper in the Big East Conference. In that article, I predicted that this league would dominate college basketball in 2006. Okay, I also know that a broken watch is correct twice a day. Eight Big East teams are currently in the RPI top 35, and league leader West Virginia 7-0/16-4 isn't even one of them. If the Mountaineers continue to lead the loop, they have a 100% chance of dancing.
 
Other virtual locks are Connecticut 7-1/19-1, Pittsburgh 6-2/17-2, and Villanova 7-1/16-2. Marquette 6-3/16-6, Syracuse 4-3/13-6, Georgetown 6-2/15-4, Seton Hall 4-3/13-6, and Cincinnati 4-4/15-7 all are on the top side of the bubble. Louisville 2-6/14-7 still has time to right the ship, but the Cardinals are in danger of missing out on the conference tournament. They are tied for 12th place with Providence.
 
Big Sky: 1 bid
 
This is one conference where winning the regular season championship is quite important. The tournament championship is played on that team's floor. Northern Arizona 7-0/15-6 leads the league today, but I expect Montana 6-1/16-3 to be the eventual champ. The Grizzlies are one of those rare teams who shoot in excess of 8% better than their opponents. They score more than 80 points per game and have one of the three best defenses in the league.
 
Big South: 1 bid
 
Birmingham Southern 8-1/15-5 and Winthrop 8-1/14-5 have pulled away from the pack. The Eagles totally dominated BSU 84-43 earlier in the season, but they must play the rematch in Birmingham. Buzz Peterson's Coastal Carolina squad is currently in 5th place at 4-4/10-9.
 
Big 10: 6 or 7 bids
 
Along with the Big East, the Big 10 continues to shine above all other leagues. Seven teams currently rank in the top 20 of the RPI, and that's good enough to put them all in the dance. Illinois 6-2/20-2, Michigan 6-2/16-3, Iowa 6-2/17-5, Indiana 5-3/13-5, Wisconsin 5-3/15-6, Ohio State 4-3/15-3, and Michigan State 4-3/16-5 will all get bids if they continue to maintain the status quo. It helps having four considerably weaker bottom feeders in the league.
 
Big 12: 3 or 4 bids
 
This league is used to getting at least five and usually six teams in the tournament, but this may be a year where they fail to meet expectations. Only two teams are in the RPI top 50. Texas 6-1/18-3 and Oklahoma 5-2/14-4 will be there. Kansas 5-2/14-6 is one the road to recovery and should get a bid. Colorado is a quiet 5-2/15-3. This is the Buff's best team since the Chauncey Billups years. Nebraska 4-3/14-6, Kansas State 3-4/12-6, and Iowa State 3-4/13-7 are the next contenders if they can go on extended winning streaks. For Missouri 3-5/10-9, this could be the end of the road for Quin Snyder.  Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott could be the next Norm Stewart, who was the Panthers' head coach for six years prior to going to Mizzou.
 
Big West: 1 bid
 
UC-Irvine 8-0/12-8 holds a three-game lead over the pack. Nobody will get an at-large bid, so the winner of the conference tournament will be the sole dancer. Pacific 4-2/14-6 and Long Beach State 4-3/9-9 are the Anteaters' top contenders.
 
Colonial Athletic: 1 or 2 bids
 
The CAA could very well steal an extra bid. Four teams are in contention for possible at-large status. One should win the automatic bid, while one other gets a favorable seat at Bubble King. George Mason 9-2/15-5, UNC-Wilmington 9-2/16-6, Virginia Commonwealth 8-3/14-5, and Old Dominion 8-3/15-6 should make the CAA Tournament exciting. The conference tournament is in Richmond, so VCU will have an edge. GMU leads the circuit in both field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage with a margin of almost 15%!  Both GMU and UNCW enjoy double digit scoring margins.
 
Conference USA: 1 or 2 bids
 
Memphis 6-0/20-2 is a lock. If the Tigers fail to win the conference tournament, then this league will get a second entry. There is a feint chance that C-USA could still get an at-large bid if Memphis wins the automatic bid. Alabama-Birmingham 5-1/15-4 has a chance to get in with an RPI in the mid 40's. UTEP 5-1/12-6 and Houston 4-3/13-6 have enough talent to make a run at the league tournament.
 
Horizon: 1 bid
 
Wisconsin-Milwaukee 9-1/16-4 has an RPI in the teens, but they may be overlooked if they fail to lock up the automatic berth. There's not much difference in the rest of the league. No more than four or five points separate the remaining eight teams. Butler 5-3/12-8 currently holds second place.
 
Independents: 0 bids
 
The last independent to receive an at-large bid was Notre Dame prior to their joining the Big East. While that streak will remain intact this year, Texas A&M Corpus Christie 14-7 is good enough to deserve a bid to the NIT. North Dakota State is only 12-10, but they earned a victory at Wisconsin.
 
Ivy League: 1 bid
 
Here it is February 3, and the teams in this league have only played four conference games (just two for Penn and Princeton). Penn 2-0/10-6 is the overwhelming favorite to go at least 13-1 in the league and earn the automatic bid (The Ivies still have no post-season tourney). Harvard 3-1/11-6 and Yale 3-1/11-8 should fight it out for an NIT bid. Poor Princeton is just 3-12 and averaging less than 50 points per game.
 
Metro Atlantic: 1 or 2 bids
 
The MAAC now has a chance for two bids if Iona 9-2/15-4 and Manhattan 9-2/13-6 beat up on the rest of the league and run the table against the other eight schools. Both the Gaels and Jaspers reside in the 40's in the RPI ratings. I predict one of these two teams will be crying in their root beers come Selection Sunday.
 
Mid-American: 1 or 2 bids
 
This league historically gets two bids, but unless the selectors think a great deal about historical precedence, the MAC may only place one team in this year's NCAAs. Miami (O) 8-3/11-8 has dropped three of their last five games. Akron 9-1/16-4 and Kent State 9-1/15-6 have fat records but are nowhere to be found in the top 60 of the RPI.  Ohio 6-4/12-6 is in the bracket buster, but they have no at-large chance.
 
Mid-Continent: 1 bid
 
This is one year where Valparaiso isn't the team to beat. Valpo has a losing record in the MCC. IUPUI 8-1/13-7 and Oral Roberts 7-2/12-9 are the cream of the crop this year. Keep an eye on Southern Utah 5-3/7-14 and Missouri-KC 6-4/9-11; they could spring an upset at the MCC Tournament. And, you can never really count out Valpo 4-5/11-8.
 
Mid-Eastern Athletic: 1 bid
 
Finally, one team has a winning overall record. Delaware State 9-0/11-10 can avoid the play-in game if they run the table in the MEAC and win the conference tournament. Coppin State 7-2/7-13 holds a slim advantage for top contender status over four other teams. DSU's winning streak could very well doom the Atlantic Sun champ to Dayton for the play-in.
 
Missouri Valley: 4 bids
 
The Valley has five teams in the RPI Top 40; that's two more than the SEC. I cannot see a scenario where all five will be invited (even if it's deserving), but I can see four teams getting invitations. Northern Iowa 9-3/19-4 deserves a five-seed at worst as of today. Creighton 9-3/15-5 should be no lower than an eight-seed. Wichita State 9-3/18-5 could go as high as a six-seed. Missouri State 7-5/14-6 and Southern Illinois 9-3/16-6 will fight it out for the fourth bid. Bradley 7-5/13-7 can compete with the big five on most nights.
The five top teams will all get a chance to showcase their skills to a national audience, as ESPN has chosen to televise all of their bracket buster games. Creighton hosts Fresno State; Missouri State plays at UW-Milwaukee; Northern Iowa hosts Bucknell; Southern Illinois hosts Louisiana Tech; and Wichita State hosts George Mason.
 
Mountain West: 1 or 2 bids
 
This is another league where historically two or more teams go to the dance. This year, there really isn't any valid reason for a second team to get the nod. San Diego State 7-1/14-6 leads the league, but their RPI is around 100. Air Force 6-2/18-3 is second, and their RPI is in the low 50's. Wherefore art thou Utah? The Utes are 3-5/10-9 and will have to rally just to get an NIT bid. Keep an eye on Lon Kruger's UNLV Rebels 6-2/12-8. They play intelligently and don't beat themselves.
 
Northeast: 1 bid
 
Robert Morris 7-3/11-8 has dropped three of five since starting 5- 0 in league play. Coming from behind to take the lead are Central Connecticut 7-2/11-7 and Fairleigh Dickinson 7-2/10-8. Monmouth 7-3/10-11, Sacred Heart 6-4/9-10, and Mt. St. Mary's 5-4/7-13 represent the rest of the contenders. Wagner 3-6/10-8 is a dark horse waiting to ambush somebody. They lead the league in field goal percentage, rebounding margin, and scoring margin, and rate a close second to Monmouth in field goal percentage defense.
 
Ohio Valley: 1 bid
 
Three teams have separated from the pack and must be considered the top contenders at the conference tournament in Nashville. Murray State 11-2/14-5 looks poised to win yet another regular season title. They blew Samford 10-3/14-6 out of the gym last week.  Samford gets the benefit of a bracket buster game at Ohio U. Tennessee Tech 10-4/15-7 is within striking distance. Tennessee State 7-5/8-10 and Austin Peay 7-6/12-10 could make some noise in the OVC Tournament.
 
Pac-10: 2, 3, or 4 bids
 
Could it be that a Top 25 Pac-10 team could fail to make the NCAA Tournament? Washington 5-4/16-4 is mired in fifth place in the league even though they are ranked 16th; their RPI ranking is around number 60. UCLA 7-2/17-4 and Arizona 6-3/13-7 figure to get bids. Among those vying with the Huskies for extra bids are California 6-3/12-6, Stanford 6-3/10-7, and Southern Cal 5-4/14-6. Oregon 4-5/10-11 is falling off a cliff. Oregon State, Washington State, and Arizona State don't appear to have enough to pull off a March surprise.
 
Patriot: 1 or 2 bids
 
No, that isn't a typo. This league could sneak in a second team. Bucknell 8-0/17-3 is the best mid-major team on the East Coast in the last seven to 10 years. The Bison will host the Patriot League Tournament unless they collapse and fall behind Lehigh 6-1/13-9. Bucknell is another one of those few teams with a shooting percentage margin above 8%. They currently average 47% to just 37% for their opponents. In conference play, they hold an 18.1 scoring margin including just 46.8 points allowed per game! If the Bison win their bracket buster contest at top 25 Northern Iowa and win out in the regular season, they should have an at-large bid sewn up prior to the Patriot League Tournament. Should someone upset them, then two teams will go to the dance.
 
Southeastern: 4 or 5 bids
 
This league went from five definite to just five possible bids in the last two weeks. The SEC teams haven't fared so badly, but they may fall victim to the dearth of conferences which appear to be doing better than they have most years.
 
Florida 5-2/19-2, Tennessee 6-1/15-3, and LSU 7-0/15-5 are near sure things. Kentucky 5-2/15-6 has re-surfaced and appears headed to a respectable finish. These four will more than likely be the only four teams to get invitations. Among the contenders for a possible fifth bid are: Vanderbilt 3-4/12-6, Alabama 4-3/11-8, Arkansas 3-4/14-6, and Georgia 3-5/13-8. One of these teams will probably have to win the automatic bid in order to go to the dance.  None of them have shown the consistency to win four games in four days.
 
Southern: 1 bid
 
The SoCon has regressed this year. The North Division is void of any talented teams. In the South Division, Davidson 6-2/13-7, College of Charleston 6-3/13-7, Georgia Southern 5-3/14-7, and Furman 5-3/12-8 are battling it out. One of these four should be the league representative.
 
Southland: 1 bid
 
Northwestern State 6-1/13-6 gets most of the publicity in this hinterland league. They travel to Utah State for the bracket buster. Sam Houston 5-2/14-5, Lamar 5-2/12-8, McNeese State 4-2/9-8, Texas-Arlington 4-3/11-9, and Louisiana Monroe 4-3/8-11 make this a balanced league. The conference tournament should be hard-fought and action-packed, as only the champion is going to go to the NCAA Tournament. The highest seeds host each round of the Southland Tournament.
 
Southwestern Athletic: 1 bid
 
The question here is which team will get an automatic bid to the Dayton play-in game? Southern 8-1/9-10 currently leads the league with four teams close behind. Alabama A&M 5-4/7-8 is the fifth place team, but they have the potential to blow by the rest of the league in a three-day tournament. The league tournament is in Birmingham.
 
Sunbelt: 1 bid
 
This is the league that might deserve two bids but will definitely get just the single automatic bid. Western Kentucky 8-1/16-5 is having another one of those dominant years. The Hilltoppers have an RPI in the low 50's, so if they win out and lose in the Sunbelt Championship game, they just might make the committee's discussion list and get blackballed. South Alabama 4-2/14-5, North Texas 5-3/12-7, and Denver 5-3/12-9 represent WKU's contenders. Middle Tennessee 3-4/10-9 hosts the tourney, so you cannot really count the Blue Raiders out.  They have underachieved to this point in the season.
 
West Coast: 1 or 2 bids
 
Gonzaga 7-0/17-3 is going to the NCAA Tournament whether or not they earn the automatic bid. Loyola Marymount 5-2/8-13, San Diego 4-3/14-6, and San Francisco 4-3/8-12 all have minute chances of pulling off the upset, but this is the best of Gonzaga's recent excellent teams. They could be as high as a two-seed.
 
W A C: 1 or 2 bids
 
Utah State 6-2/15-4 is currently a game behind Louisiana Tech 7-1/14-7, but the Aggies are rated around number 30 in the RPI. Utah State has an easier bracket buster opponent than the Bulldogs, so they have a better chance of pulling off an impressive showing on the national stage. All but San Jose State and Idaho have the potential to win three games in three days in the postseason tournament. Nevada 5-3/15-5 hosts the tournament, and the Wolf Pack could easily crash the party. They host Akron in the bracket buster.
 
How The Binarians See The SEC
 
Team                         Rating                       Final Conf. Record (by using ratings)
Ratings rounded to nearest whole number
East
 
Florida                         97                              13- 3
Tennessee                   95                              13- 3
Kentucky                            89                                9- 7
South Carolina                 88                                7- 9
Vanderbilt                   88                                6-10
Georgia                               85                                7- 9
 
West
 
L S U                          96                                15-1
Arkansas                                  91                                8- 8
Alabama                      86                                7- 9
Ole Miss                      84                                5-11
Auburn                        82                                3-13
Miss. State                  80                                3-13
 
Saturday's Predicted Scores
 
L S U         76        Alabama        70
Arkansas       73        South Car.     65
Miss. St.        79        Auburn          77
Tennessee    83        Ole Miss         68
Florida             78        Kentucky       66
Vanderbilt    61       Georgia         54
 
Note: Some information and statistics came from each of the division I conference's official men's basketball web pages.

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