Vanderbilt's Dim At-Large Hopes

Two years ago, Vanderbilt's men's basketball team finished 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference and 19-8 in the regular season, and then won twice in the SEC Tournament, including an upset over Mississippi State to enter Selection Sunday at 21-9. Still, there was a tiny window of doubt whether the Commodores would receive an at-large bid.

Last season, Vanderbilt finished 8-8 in the SEC and 18-12 overall in the regular season. The Gold Men proceeded to disappear to perennial post-season Commodore-killer Auburn in the opening round of the conference tournament. The Commodores were not part of the 2005 Selection Committee discussion.

Here we sit on the eve of the 2006 regular season finale, and Vanderbilt is one upset win away from finishing 8-8 for a third year in a row. Assuming the Commodores find a way to beat Tennessee (and not counting this as a lock), Vanderbilt would enter conference tournament play at 17-10. If this happens, how many SEC Tournament wins would the black and gold need to get in the Big Dance? Unfortunately, this year it looks like three wins might still place them in a precarious position. Let's look in depth at the entire process and discover why this gloomy prediction has wings.

Listening to this year's Selection head man Craig Littlepage, he believed a week ago that at least 53 teams had already played themselves in the NCAA Tournament. That leaves 12 spots left for the so-called bubble teams to take. Before we just take the top 12 bubble teams, we must qualify Littlepage's quote. There are a few mid-major conferences where a conference tournament upset could reduce that dozen bubble availability. Next, the major conferences could see a dark horse pull off a string of upsets, further reducing the obtainable bids to the bubblers.

I am going to look at the bids as conservatively as possible, not allocating at-large invitations to some teams that most experts consider near-locks. I am going to allocate the maximum benefit of the doubt in order to remove all doubt about how far Vandy must advance next week (again assuming the Commodores take care of business against Tennessee; losing to the Vols makes winning the tournament 100% mandatory).

One-Bidders

I am placing 17 conferences on this list, although two of them could easily sneak in a second team if the top team loses in their tournament final.

America East: Albany cannot receive an at-large bid. The Great Danes have an RPI in the 130's.

Atlantic Sun: Could Lipscomb or Belmont make their first trip to the dance? If Belmont wins the tournament, the Bruins will go to the NCAA, and the Bisons will go to the NIT.

Big Sky: Northern Arizona won the regular season title, but I think Montana will take the automatic bid.

Big South: It comes down to Winthrop against Coastal Carolina. Buzz Petersons's CCU Chanticleers swept the Eagles in the regular season.

Big West: Pacific has an excellent record but a poor RPI, so they won't be garnering an at-large bid.

Horizon: Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Butler fall below the bubble.

Ivy: Penn could clinch the first automatic bid Friday night with a win at Yale and a Princeton loss at Brown. The Quakers are coming down the stretch missing a couple of key contributors.

MAAC: Manhattan and Iona were once considered bubble-worthy, but their RPIs have fallen too low for serious consideration.

MAC: Here is where I take a little poetic license. Many experts believe Kent State has done enough to receive an at-large bid. If the Golden Flashes win at Akron to close out the regular season, they will be on the edge. Kent's RPI is about the same as Vandy's.

Mid-Continent: IUPUI, Oral Roberts, Missouri-Kansas City, and Valparaiso are the four top teams, but none of them have a chance of getting an at-large bid.

MEAC: Delaware State, Bethune-Cookman, and Coppin State are the top three.

NEC: The final four in this conference are Fairleigh Dickinson, Central Connecticut State, Monmouth, and Robert Morris.

OVC: Murray State, Jacksonville State, Tennessee Tech, and Samford are in the semi-finals.

Southern: This is the most balanced league in the land. Draw a name out of a hat to pick the winner.

Southland: Northwestern State is the class of the league, but they must win the tournament to go dancing.

SWAC: Southern and Grambling have emerged as the top two, but both Alabama A&M and Alabama State have the talent to win the conference tournament.

Sunbelt: Western Kentucky is another one of those teams that will be brought to the Selection Committee discussion if the Hilltoppers fail to garner the automatic bid. South Alabama has the horses to win the tournament, and fast-finishing MTSU must be considered a contender as well.

Guaranteed To Get Two Teams If Champ Is Upset

Four conferences may still receive just one bid if the regular season champion wins the league tournament as well. However, if these champions fail to gain their automatic bids, they will most assuredly receive an at-large bid and take one away from the bubble.

Atlantic 10: George Washington is a lock to get an invitation. No other A-10 team has the credentials to get in as an at-large invitee. Second place Charlotte is 11-4/18-10, but their RPI is in the 110's. St. Joseph's has a gaudy RPI, but their record is just 14-12. 

Mountain West: Politically, this would be a bad move if only one team emerged from the MWC. Politics aside, Air Force may not have won the regular season crown, but the Falcons have a low 40's RPI. If someone else beats AFA in the title game, expect two teams to get bids. San Diego State won the regular season title, but Brigham Young is the hot team

Patriot: Once this league began offering scholarships, its place in the pecking order began moving up the ladder. Bucknell has done enough to earn an at-large bid. Both Lehigh and Holy Cross have the talent to pull off the conference tournament upset.

West Coast: Can anybody beat Gonzaga? It's not likely, especially since the Bulldogs host the WCC Tourney. Loyola Marymount earned the second seed and a free pass to the semifinals. St. Mary's gets one bye and should meet LMU for the right to stop Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista.

Mid-Majors That Will Definitely Receive More Than One Bid

Three mid-major leagues will see multiple members go dancing. It matters not who wins the automatic bid here.

Colonial: George Mason, with a low 20's RPI, is a lock to get a bid. UNC-Wilmington, Hofstra, and Old Dominion in that order will all get consideration. At least two Colonial teams will be happy next Sunday evening.

Missouri Valley: After this year, the MVC may no longer be considered a mid-major conference. Six teams are in the hunt, but I think only four will receive admittance to the cotillion. Wichita State, Missouri State, and Creighton are locks, while Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, and Bradley have the resumes to make it to the discussion.

WAC: Nevada and Utah State should both get in, but Utah State must get to the WAC semi-final game. If someone other than these two wins the automatic bid, then that team and Nevada will get bids.

The Big Boys

Seven conferences will send a minimum of 28 teams to the tournament. These teams have already exceeded the minimum requirement for lock status.

Atlantic Coast: Duke, North Carolina, Boston College, and North Carolina State are definitely in the dance. Florida State at 8-7/18-8 still has a little work to do. With an RPI in the mid 50's, the Seminoles could wrap up a bid with a win at Miami to close out the regular season. For Virginia, Miami, and Maryland, the clock is about to strike midnight. If the Terps win at Virginia Sunday, their RPI will be better than Vanderbilt's by as much as 10, even if the Commodores beat Tennessee.

Big East: Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Georgetown are in. Marquette is about 95% sure of getting a bid. Cincinnati, Syracuse, and Seton Hall all need to add to their resumes prior to Selection Sunday; all three of these teams are ahead of Vanderbilt in the RPI.

Big 10: Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State have met the requirements. Saturday's winner between Michigan and Indiana is also in, as every league member with a winning record will get a bid from the top RPI conference. The IU-Michigan loser could still get a bid.

Big 12: The Big 12 will not get six teams in this year, but they should get at least four. Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma are locks. Texas A&M, as I predicted last week, upset Texas. At 9-6/19-7, the Aggies are one Big 12 Tournament win away from getting a bid. Colorado at 8-7/18-8 still has work to do with an RPI in the low 50's (still ahead of Vanderbilt).

Conference USA: Memphis is obviously in as a high seed. Alabama-Birmingham played themselves in with a win over the Tigers. UTEP and Houston probably have to win the automatic bid, but both have RPIs about the same as Vanderbilt.

Pac-10: UCLA, Washington, and Arizona are locks, as all three have RPIs high enough to be safe if they lose every remaining game. Stanford is 11-6/15-11, but with an RPI around 70, the Cardinal should get jilted next Sunday. California at 11-6/17-9 has about the same RPI as Vandy.

Southeastern: Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, and Alabama are in. Arkansas at 9-6/20-8 is one win away.

What This Means

If we take the bare minimum of teams from this group, meaning all the mid-major teams win their conference tournaments, no major conferences see any upset champions, and all the teams that are close all lose every remaining game on their schedules, then we have a total of 56 teams with bids in hand. That leaves only nine for the bubble.

In reality, four or five teams will play their way into the tournament by getting the job done this week. That leaves only four or five bids to go to the bubble teams.

Vanderbilt currently resides around number 60 in the RPI. There are about 20 teams ahead of them in the RPI and 15 of them have clinched a winning record in their conference. The Commodores would have to jump over 15 of these bubble teams in one week's time.

What it comes down to is this: Vanderbilt absolutely must win Saturday's game against Tennessee to have any chance of receiving an at-large bid. Then, the Commodores must beat either Auburn, Ole Miss, or Mississippi State next Thursday, LSU next Friday, and either Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, or Arkansas next Saturday. Getting to the SEC Tournament final game would mean a record of 20-10 and a six game winning streak. And, that still may not be enough depending on what happens elsewhere.

If we must begin to look at the NIT, where would Vanderbilt be seeded if they entered NIT play with a record of 17-12 or 18-11? I think they would be seeded 4th in one of the four, 10-team brackets. That would guarantee them a first round home game. Some of the teams that could be seeded 5th in a bracket and thus be the likely first round opponent at Memorial Gym are: UTEP, Virginia, Clemson, Temple, Akron, Louisiana Tech, Minnesota, Miami (Fl), and Virginia Commonwealth.

The Computer Ratings

SEC EAST SEC Overall Rating
       
Tennessee 11-4 20-6 92
Kentucky 9-6 19-10 94
Florida 9-6 23-6 93
Vanderbilt 7-8 16-10 89
Georgia 5-10 15-13 84
S. Carolina 5-10 13-14 83
       
SEC WEST SEC Overall Rating
       
L S U 13-2 20-7 97
Alabama 10-5 17-10 91
Arkansas 9-6 20-8 91
Miss. State 4-11 14-14 81
Ole Miss 4-11 14-14 79
Auburn 4-11 12-14 82
       

Saturday's Predicted Scores

Kentucky 77
Florida 71
   
Auburn 75
South Carolina 72
   
L S U 77
Ole Miss 54
   
Alabama 74
Mississippi State 68
   
Arkansas 70
Georgia 66
   
Vanderbilt 74
Tennessee 72

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