An analysis of these factors and others should give Vanderbilt fans a much better idea of what it will take for the Commodores to make the tournament this season. Is 8-8 in the SEC plus one or two tournament wins good enough? Do the ‘Dores have to run the table? Let's find out.
It all starts with the Commodores' situation in the present. As of today, Vanderbilt is 13-8 (4-6 SEC). Having played the 39th toughest schedule in the country, they are 3-4 against the top 50 teams in the RPI standings, but 0-3 against teams ranked 51-100. Against teams ranked below 100, the Commodores are 10-1, with the sole loss being on the road against Georgia Tech. All those factors combine to make Vanderbilt the #58 ranked team in the RPI standings through Sunday's games. For reference, the other teams in the high 50's are Virginia, Temple, and Houston. The "Bubble Teams" are usually around the mid to high 40's in the RPI – teams that fall in that category right now include Alabama, Kentucky, Air Force, Western Kentucky, UAB, Old Dominion, and South Carolina. Vanderbilt's road wins – against Georgetown, Dayton, and Kentucky – are given extra weight in the RPI formula.
As most fans probably know, Vanderbilt's remaining regular season games include three home games and three away games. Vandy plays in Nashville against Florida, LSU, and Tennessee; they go on the road to play Ole Miss, UGA, and South Carolina. Going undefeated in these 6 games would leave Vandy at 19-8 (10-6) heading into the SEC tournament. It is almost unheard of for a team with 19 wins, 10 conference wins, and multiple quality road victories to be passed up on Selection Sunday, regardless of their performance in the conference tournament. However, if Vanderbilt only goes 3-3, they will fall to 16-11 (7-9). Their RPI will continue to hover in the mid to high 50's, and they would likely not make the tournament without winning the SEC tournament. The borderline cases fall between these two scenarios. If Vanderbilt goes 5-1 or 4-2 in their remaining 6 regular season games, it is unclear how things will sort out.
In those cases, it is important to look at the entire SEC for two reasons. One, the conference's overall strength effects how Vanderbilt will be perceived – the stronger the SEC, the more impressive Vanderbilt's mediocre conference record will appear. The second reason is that it matters where Vanderbilt ranks in the SEC: not necessarily in wins and losses, but in the eyes of the Selection Committee.
This year was supposed to be a "down" year for the SEC, but that is not how things have turned out. Measured by the omnipresent RPI, the SEC is the 4th strongest conference in NCAA hoops – behind only the Big 10, Big East, and ACC. The SEC is ranked in a statistical tie with the ACC, separated by only .0018 in the RPI formula. On the other hand, the SEC is significantly ahead of the rest of the NCAA's conferences by this measure. The Big 12, ranked as the 5th strongest conference, is .0169 behind the SEC – that's a bigger gap than the gap between the SEC and the #1 conference in the nation! For those who don't buy into the RPI, there are other objective measures to use. The SEC's win-loss record also ranks 4th in the country. The SEC also played a more difficult non-conference schedule than every major conference besides the Big East.
Overall, the SEC is statistically as strong as the ACC this season by almost any measure except ESPN hype. In a typical year, either five or six SEC teams are invited to March Madness. Thus, being the 5th best team in the SEC would almost be a "lock" for the tournament, but being the 7th best team makes you a strong NIT team. This season, the SEC's strength relative to other major conferences seems to be about average. Therefore, the top five teams in the SEC can breathe easy on Selection Sunday, and the bottom six should not get their hopes up. There will only be one true SEC "bubble" team – the one in sixth place.
So Vanderbilt's task is already a bit more clear – finish at least 6th in the SEC if you want a shot at the tournament. Now the question is this: who will Vanderbilt be racing against for that 5th or 6th spot? Auburn and Mississippi State – each with a 2-8 conference record – are already out of the running. Ole Miss (3-7) is on a seven game losing streak and can also be counted out. Tennessee, Florida, and LSU have separated themselves from the pack based on their performance to date – they each have fantastic records both in and out of the SEC and should be considered locks for the tournament already. Alabama has also probably played themselves into the tournament barring a major collapse – at 7-3 and 2nd in the SEC West, they appear to be in good shape. Their schedule ranks as one of the toughest in the country, so the committee will likely have no trouble admitting them to the tournament.
That leaves Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas competing for the 5th and 6th tournament spots. One thing that tells a fan of any of those teams is that it's hard to say who is "controlling their own destiny" right now. Each team's fate depends partly on what the other schools do the rest of the way out.
That being said, Arkansas is a severe long-shot for the 5th spot because of the weakness of the SEC West. In games between the divisions, the SEC West is 8-14. Additionally, the SEC East is home to the conference's two top-ranked teams (UF and UT), while the SEC West contains the conference's two weakest teams judged by overall record (MSU at 12-11 and Auburn at 10-11). It is highly likely that the best team from the four SEC East squads will land the fifth spot.
What does Vanderbilt need to do in order to pass Kentucky and grab hold of that 3rd spot in the SEC East standings? First of all, the road games at Georgia and South Carolina will be crucial. Wins in each of those two games would make it very difficult for either UGA or USC to catch Vanderbilt in the standings. Second, Vandy must hope that Kentucky loses a game or two – the Wildcats still must play at LSU, at Tennessee, and at home versus Florida. It seems unlikely that Kentucky will win more than one of those contests – their best case scenario is probably a 9-7 finish in the SEC, even if they sweep their other three remaining games (UGA, Ole Miss, and at USC). 8-8 is probably slightly more likely.
If Vanderbilt finishes 5-1, including wins over UGA and USC on the road, they will almost certainly secure 3rd place in the SEC East with a 9-7 record and the tiebreaker over UK. 3rd place in the East earns Vanderbilt a chance to play either Auburn or Mississippi State in the first round of the conference tournament – a game that should be another victory, despite what happened to Vanderbilt in last year's SEC tournament. The second round matchup against Alabama (SEC West #2 seed) would be a tough but very winnable game – Kevin Stallings has an excellent record against Alabama in his tenure at Vanderbilt, and the Commodores took Alabama to OT on the road last week.
However, if Vanderbilt loses two games and falls to 8-8, it runs a serious risk of finishing 4th in the SEC East. Should that be the case, they would probably need to win two games in the SEC tournament to feel confident about their tournament chances. If they win their first round game, their second round contest would be against the SEC West #1 seed – LSU. This is a much tougher matchup for the ‘Dores than Alabama, and would be a must-win game.
So here is the bottom line – if Vanderbilt finishes 9-7 in the SEC, preferably with wins over UGA and USC on the road, they are almost certainly an NCAA tournament team as the #3 seed in the SEC East. If the Commodores finish 8-8, they are a bubble team. In that case, their fate will be decided by how the selection committee compares them to Kentucky and Arkansas. The performances of those two teams, as well as the Commodores' finish in the SEC tournament, would be the decisive factors. If Vanderbilt does any worse than 8-8, or they are passed in the standings by USC or UGA, then they can be safely counted out of the NCAA tournament, barring a run to the SEC finals or better. The picture for Vanderbilt is neither rosy nor grim – the last six games of the SEC schedule will be the decisive ones as the Commdoores try to play their way into another successful season.