It's amazing how much of a difference one year can make.
Vanderbilt men's basketball -- in 2017 -- exhibits a lot of the same characteristics as the 2016 team.
A teasing, torturous, twisting, turning, trippy mind-bender of a season has inspired and accessed every well of emotion, every kind of feeling, inside the hearts of VU fans.
Before one gets the impression that these past two seasons were mirror images of each other, let's be clear: What was a journey defined by disappointment and dissatisfaction under Kevin Stallings feels so much more joyful and delightful under Bryce Drew. This is mostly the product of one coach (Stallings) being on the job for a long time -- and not winning many NCAA Tournament games over the past 10 years -- whereas the other (Drew) has exceeded expectations in his first season. What was a tired ending to one tenure is a fresh start for the other, even if the substance of each season is similar.
One other key difference between Vanderbilt in 2016 and 2017: This year, Damian Jones's potential isn't being wasted (because he's not on the roster). The 2017 team is clearly making more of its resources, especially when one realizes that the SEC (though hardly great) is tougher than it was last season, on course to get two more teams into the Big Dance (five, versus three in 2016) if VU makes the field.
Vanderbilt really is in a comfortably uncomfortable position, if only because the same bumpy ride of a season didn't feel nearly as enjoyable a year ago.
Yet, that comparison between 2016 and 2017 is only half of the full picture when emphasizing the "comfortable discomfort" at the heart of VU basketball.
Here's what's also uncomfortable about Vanderbilt's situation as the SEC Tournament arrives on Thursday evening: VU -- if it wants to advance -- must beat a team it swept during the regular season. Texas A&M is just such a team in the second round (the Commodores' first game), and if the Drew Crew can win, Florida waits in the quarterfinals on Friday evening. Going 3-0 against virtually any team (other than Missouri or LSU in this season's SEC) is not a walk in the park, imposing an extra degree of difficulty on what the Dores are about to achieve.
A pessimist can look at this situation and say that even if Vanderbilt beats A&M, Florida will breathe fire and spit nails in the attempt to finally lock down a win over the Dores. If Vanderbilt loses that game, so the pessimistic case goes, VU's argument for the NCAA Tournament will be less than airtight.
For the optimists in the crowd, a word of caution before getting to your side of the street: The idea that "there's no way VU can't get a bid" is, on its face, shortsighted. Vanderbilt -- if selected -- would become the first 15-loss team in human history to get an at-large Dance card. Vanderbilt got blown out by Missouri. Vanderbilt was the 7 seed in the tournament of an SEC which is not nearly what it was in the mid-1990s, when Kentucky and Arkansas were superpowers, Lon Kruger got Florida to the Final Four, and former Vandy coach Eddie Fogler made VU a 3 seed and South Carolina (a few years later) a 2 seed.
If a win over A&M is all VU gets from the SEC Tournament, the Dores will leave the door open for their exclusion from the field. They would be in better position than most bubble teams, it appears, but VU would fall short of "lock" status.
It should be reasonable to conclude that VU will become a lock if it beats Florida and gets two wins out of this tournament. One win leaves the matter in some doubt, and a loss to A&M will create an anxious weekend leading up to Selection Sunday afternoon.
This is an uncomfortable position within the narrow prism of bracketology.
In terms of the larger theater of circumstance surrounding Vanderbilt, it's more comfortable than the pessimists might think.
The specifics of a conference tournament bracket are earned to an extent -- modest conference records generally lead to more imposing bracket paths, whereas being a top seed (see Kentucky's path in the SEC bracket) usually carries its share of rewards. However, when bubble teams are discussed, the games which typically punch tickets or eliminate teams during Championship Week come in conference tournament second round games and quarterfinals. The second-rounders are usually eliminators more often than ticket-punchers, whereas quarterfinals are more commonly the games which, if won by a bubble team, send that group to the field of 68.
There is a Plinko-chip quality to these brackets, in that the identity of the quarterfinal opponent -- where the chip landed at the bottom of the board after so many twists and turns during the regular season -- can matter a lot.
Let's say that Arkansas and not Florida was the 2 seed in this tournament, or that VU nabbed the 6 seed instead of the 7. Vanderbilt -- having split with the Hogs during the regular season -- could have been subjected to a quarterfinal test amounting to a best-of-three series against the Razorbacks. The selection committee could have said, "Wanna get in? Prove you can beat a good team a second time." Arkansas isn't nearly as strong as Florida, but the perceived need for VU to win the game almost surely would have been greater.
This way, while it's going to be very hard to solve Florida a third time -- should VU advance (more on that shortly) -- the reality that VU is 2-0 against the Gators might ultimately help the team's bubble chances.
If a bubble team has already won two games against a highly-rated opponent, would the committee really hold a loss in a third meeting against that same squad? The difficulty of VU's quarterfinal is considerable, but the downside of losing isn't as severe as it would have been against Arkansas or South Carolina had those teams been VU's quarterfinal foe.
Therefore, amidst the clutter and complexity of life on the bubble -- especially as the first 15-loss at-large team ever recorded -- Vanderbilt's bracket is a mixed bag.
The one thing every VU fan and bracketologist should be able to agree on: Win the A&M game.
It will not be lost on any Vanderbilt fan that the Dores blew it in their first SEC Tournament game last year, losing as a 5 seed to 12th-seeded Tennessee. Yet, despite that horrible stumble, VU still got in (but at the cost of being shipped to the First Four instead of being guaranteed a round-of-64 game on a Thursday or Friday).
As said above, if quarterfinal wins send bubble teams to the NCAAs, second-round losses often knock them out. VU dodged that bullet last year, but it would be a bold temptation of fate to slip on the banana peel a second time.
Vanderbilt already has two wins over A&M, one could say, so is a loss in a third game really that damaging? When a team is a 10 seed in the SEC Tournament, it's fair to expect a bubble team to go 3-0 in head-to-head competition.
One more reminder in a sea of reminders: The A&M game is not a quality-win opportunity -- that's what the Florida game is. Facing the Aggies on Thursday is a bad-loss avoidance game. The resume isn't enhanced by the win; the resume is protected from a blemish. There's a difference between the two.
It's not unanimous, but if you asked most (qualified, respected) bracketologists right now, they would say Vanderbilt has done enough to get into the field. However, some results in other conference tournaments (it happens every year) could reduce the pool of at-large bids. Too many variables exist for teams near the cut line to feel safe.
If Vanderbilt has done enough to be above the cut line, a loss to A&M could push VU's position below it. If VU beats A&M, it will be hard for the Dores to fall below the threshold required to Dance. A win over Florida would -- undeniably -- make the Drew Crew a lock. Just keep in mind the difference between improvement and avoiding a diminishment on a resume.
It's time to defend Tyler Davis and Robert Williams once more.
It's time to win the constant battles over possessions -- not giving them away, and not gift-wrapping cheap points to a struggling Aggie offense.
It's time to realize that after overcoming Florida down the stretch on Saturday -- showing how much heart exists in the VU inner circle -- a spirited performance should become the expectation for this time.
VU might not play with precision, and it might not shoot the lights out, but a maximum of effort -- avoiding the flat performance against the Vols in this situation a year ago -- should certainly be within the capacity of this team to provide.
Beat A&M. Make sure of that.
If the Commodores lose on Thursday, they'll give the committee a reason to snub them on Selection Sunday. Take care of the Aggies, and it's probably going to work out all right.
Win one game against a 10 seed in the SEC Tournament for a spot in the Big Dance?
If given this scenario before the season, what Vanderbilt fan wouldn't have signed on the dotted line.
Embrace the discomfort... because it's more comfortable than just about anyone expected in November.
SEC TOURNAMENT HISTORY
1935,No Tournament Held, , ,
1938,Georgia Tech,Ole Miss,Baton Rouge,58-47
1953-78,No Tournament Held, , ,
1996,Mississippi St.,Kentucky,New Orleans,84-73
2003,Kentucky,Mississippi St.,New Orleans,64-57
2010,Kentucky,Mississippi State,Nashville,75-74 ot
2016,Kentucky,Texas A&M,Nashville,82-77 ot