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March 15, 2008

Bracketology: Breaking down Vandy's NCAA resume

The Madness of March will begin today for Vanderbilt fans, who will watch the NCAA Tournament selection show today to discover where the Commodores will be seeded in the Field of 65.

There's no doubt that Vanderbilt will be in the field. Holding a 26-7 overall record, and 11-7 in the Southeastern Conference, VU obviously has the credentials to get in. For most of the season, Vanderbilt was the second highest rated team in the conference, behind regular season champ Tennessee.

The big question will be where. Heading into the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt had the chance to improve its seeding with a few good wins. Some felt that if the Commodores were to win the tournament, they could receive as high as a two seed - likely assuring they would face a decidedly out-matched first round NCAA tournament opponent.

However, after defeating also ran Auburn in the opening round of the SEC tournament, Vanderbilt put in a decidedly uninspiring performance against Arkansas, losing 81-75. Now, Vandy fans may face seeing their 'Dores fall as far as a six seed, likely assuring a prohibitively long road trip for their first round game.

Here's a breakdown of Vanderbilt's tournament selection resume:

RPI
The Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI, is perhaps the strongest part of Vanderbilt's resume.

Though there are many RPI charts, each use the same basic formula: 25% is accounted for by the team's winning percentage; 50% comes from the average opponents' winning percentage; and 25% is the average of the opponents' opponents' winning percentage. Some RPI formulas take strength of schedule and/or margin of victory into account.

The NCAA Tournament selection committee uses their own RPI as one of the main weighting factors in selecting and seeding the field.

Two of the most popular RPI publishers - Ken Pomeroy and Real Time RPI - both have Vanderbilt with a No. 11 RPI. So, by that standard, the Commodores could be expected to be seeded as high as a three.

Strength of schedule
According to Ken Pomeroy, Vanderbilt's SOS is 37 - good enough to give them the benefit of some doubt, but not good enough to push them up a seed or two in the tournament field. If push comes to shove, the committee is likely to downgrade Vanderbilt's seed by virtue of the weakness of the SEC.

Usually, the SEC rewards its members with a strong conference schedule, full of opponents that are rated among the nation's top 20. Because of the way the RPI works, SEC teams could actually gain RPI ranking even if they lost to highly ranked SEC teams.

This year, however, that was not the case. Though Vanderbilt has an impressive record in the conference, the SEC is rated as only the fourth toughest conference in the nation.

The SEC's out of conference performance is the reason why: the conference played only the 13th toughest non-league schedule, and most SEC teams didn't have a single out-of-conference win over a team headed to the Field of 65. Tennessee, owner of the nation's No. 1 RPI, also played the nation's toughest schedule, and third toughest out-of-conference slate. But eight SEC teams have OOC SOS in the triple digits.

So, a gaudy SEC record won't have the same weight as a similar record in the ACC, Big 12 or Big East - and might fall below a team from a mid-major conference with a better conference won-loss record.

Good wins
One of the key criterion the committee uses is what they term "good wins": wins against teams that manage to make - or nearly make - the Field of 65.

Vanderbilt appears to have at least three, and as many as six, good wins.

Austin Peay (81-67)
Though Austin Peay's RPI is only 84, the Governors earned the OVC's automatic bid. Look for APSU to get one of the lowest seeds in the field, and be facing one of the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament, but they give Vandy a solid win by committee standards.

South Alabama (91-88)
Though South Alabama was upset in the Conference USA Tournament, the 24-6 Jags probably would have gained their conference's second bid had they managed to make the finals against Memphis. Rivals has USA as one of the final at-large invitees, seeded as an 11, but even if they miss the tournament, Vandy's win over the Jags is a big positive for the Commodores.

UMass (97-88)
Vanderbilt's win over the Minutemen was one of the best games of the year at Memorial Gym. Like South Alabama, UMass was upset in their conference tournament, and will likely be on the outside looking in when the field is announced today. However, though the A-10 ranks below the SEC, UMass' No. 44 RPI would place them fifth in the SEC - ahead of Ole Miss, Kentucky and Florida.

Kentucky (93-52)
The Cats have likely leaked their way into the tournament. Usually, any win over the Wildcats would be a big one, but this year may be an exception. That said, a 41-point win over UK - their worst loss in SEC history - will speak loudly to the committee as to the up side to this year's Commodores.

Tennessee (72-69)
Vanderbilt's upset of then top ranked Tennessee received huge national exposure, as the game was seen on national television.

Mississippi State (86-85, OT)
The Bulldogs ran away with the SEC West title. Though the game was largely won by an eye-popping senior night performance by Shan Foster, a win is a win in the eyes of the committee.

Bad losses
Vanderbilt doesn't have many losses - and none they have will be considered bad by the committee. Four of their seven defeats came against SEC Tournament teams: Arkansas (twice), Tennessee and Kentucky. The other three came against Ole Miss and Florida, which will both compete in the NIT, and Alabama.

Final 10 games
The NCAA committee wants the most competitive field it can pick, and that's why one important factor in selecting participants is how teams did in their last 10 games of the season. Vanderbilt finished its season 7-3, which is impressive, but their uninspiring regular season loss to Alabama and their second round upset to Arkansas in Atlanta won't inspire the committee to push VU ahead of other similarly rated teams.

Star power
Though the committee will never admit it, there's little doubt that a team with a star player gives his team the benefit of the doubt. SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster gives Vanderbilt a big name that every committee member recognizes.

History
Again, the committee always swears off accusations of showing preferential treatment to "name" programs, but one always has to wonder if it helps some teams squeeze ahead of other lesser known programs. If winning history does have an impact, Vanderbilt's run to the Sweet 16 last year has to help their cause.

That said, for some reason many national media prognosticators have made a career out of downgrading Vanderbilt despite its gaudy RPI and won-loss record. This year has been no exception: In an interview on Nashville's 104.5 The Zone, ESPN's Joe Lunardi said Vanderbilt should be no better than a six seed, despite what would appear to be a resume that betters that of several higher seeded teams.

Though VU has been to back-to-back Sweet 16s, Vandy fans can't expect to get the respect their recent history may deserve from the selection committee when seeds are assigned.


How many SEC teams will go?
With Tennessee's surprisingly close win over South Carolina, and subsequent loss to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament semifinals, it's now possible that the SEC won't have one of the tournament's No. 1 seeds. As a result, all SEC teams will likely suffer in the eyes of the committee this afternoon.

Despite their own loss to Arkansas yesterday, Mississippi State will be invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas 's big run at the end of the season boosts their tournament resume, and should Georgia upset the Razorbacks today, Arkansas is still in the tournament.

The question, however, may now be Kentucky. Thought to be safely in the NCAA Tournament field, their shocking loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament's opening round - coupled with a possible Georgia win over Arkansas in the SEC title game today - could spell big trouble for the Cats. UK has three bad losses prior to the start of conference play, and their RPI puts them squarely on the bubble. The loss of their best player, Patrick Patterson, coupled with the loss to Georgia, may cause doubt in the minds of the committee as to their worthiness.

Though the committee swears off conference quotas, many believe it is unlikely they will invite six SEC teams to the Field of 65. If they have to hand Georgia the SEC's automatic bid, it is possible that Kentucky will miss the Big Dance.

Vanderbilt, however, won't have such concerns. No team with 18 or more wins and a No. 11 RPI has ever missed the NCAA Tournament field. Where Vanderbilt lands, and how difficult their first round opponent will be, waits to be seen.



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