Sports, Thrill of Victory

Vandy gets a blank slate with surprising NCAA tournament berth

27 FEB 2016: Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin IV (4) reacts to a call during Vanderbilt's 74-62 win over No. 16 Kentucky at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire)

In a season that had a lot of ups and downs, the Vanderbilt Commodores experienced another unexpected twist on Sunday.

They actually got into the NCAA tournament.

After losing to Tennessee in Thursday’s SEC tournament second round, the consensus from most bracketologists was that Vandy was firmly back on the bubble.

Damian Jones and Vandy will have another shot to live up to the hype when they take on Wichita State in the NCAA tournament First Four round on Tuesday. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Damian Jones and Vandy will have another shot to live up to the hype when they take on Wichita State in the NCAA tournament First Four round on Tuesday. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

By the time other bubble teams picked up wins in various conference tournaments around the country, it seemed all but certain that the Commodores were going to be out of the field of 68.

And then it happened. The South bracket was the first to be revealed during the CBS selection show, and there was Vandy, slotted against Wichita State in a First Four game on Tuesday in Dayton.

It took a few seconds to sink in. The team that had failed to come close to its lofty preseason expectations had another chance. That’s all the Commodores could ask for.

But now it’s time to see how they use that chance.

The good news is that the pressure of the past few months is no longer present. After starting 0-3 in SEC play, Kevin Stallings and his team found their backs against the wall. From there, it was a constant fight to try and get back into not only SEC title contention, but NCAA tournament contention as well.

Every game mattered. For Vandy’s tournament dreams to come true, it had to find a way to put together a big run late in the season.

The Commodores did that. They won six of their final eight regular season games and felt good about where they were heading into the SEC tournament.

Of course, then they lost an inexcusable game to the Vols. To make matters worse, they lost after Wade Baldwin’s game-tying layup that would have sent it overtime was ruled to be after the buzzer.

It was a crushing loss in a season filled with them.

There were the head-scratching losses at Arkansas and South Carolina early in the SEC slate. There was the loss at Ole Miss. There was the gut punch at Mississippi State when the Bulldogs roared back and won the game on a three-pointer as time expired.

But guess what? None of that matters now.

Jeff Roberson will play a big role in Vandy's NCAA tournament game against Wichita State. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

Jeff Roberson will play a big role in Vandy’s NCAA tournament game against Wichita State. PHOTO BY MATTHEW MAXEY

The objective for the Commodores is simple. They aren’t fighting for position in the conference or in meaningless polls. They aren’t even fighting to meet preseason expectations.

Instead, they’re simply fighting for one win. Survive and advance. It’s what the NCAA tournament is all about.

Vandy couldn’t find itself in a better position after all that has happened this season. After losing to the Vols, everything was out of this team’s control. It had produced its body of work, and it was up to the committee to decide if that was good enough based on what other teams around the country had done.

However, now the Commodores are the ones in control. They once again find themselves in a position where they control their own destiny.

Win and you play again. Lose and you go home.

The battle with the Shockers won’t be an easy one. Wichita State is at the top of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency statistic, which obviously means that it has been quite good this season in defending opponents.

There’s also the fact that players like Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have experienced plenty of NCAA tournament success with the Shockers during their Wichita State careers. This is a team that knows how to win on the highest level and understands what it takes to advance.

Because of that, it makes this the most unlikely First Four game ever.

But you can throw the term “First Four” out the window when the teams take the court. This will be a game between two teams that have Sweet 16 and beyond potential.

For Vandy, the problem all season has been living up to that potential. Luckily, all it has to do now is just win.

That’s because March Madness is officially here. And winning is all that matters.

Sports and Entertainment Nashville will have NCAA tournament coverage all throughout March. Be sure to follow Blake Lovell on Twitter (@theblakelovell) for even more March Madness updates!