Thursday, March 15, 2012

VSL Gets You Ready: Previewing Vanderbilt vs. Harvard

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the importance to the fans of this team proving it is "different" from the last two tournament teams. We won on senior night against Florida. Perhaps most emphatically, we won the SEC championship game against Kentucky. Now, there is one final way to prove that this team truly is different, and that is to win its first-round tournament game.

By no means do I suggest that this is the team's ceiling. As my bracket indicates, I firmly believe Vanderbilt has a great chance to get to the elite 8, and it took everything in my power to not put them all the way to New Orleans. For the first time pretty much ever, Vanderbilt has momentum heading into this tournament and has a seemingly great path, with a weakened 1-seed, to get there. But there's just one thing that stands in our way, and that's "throwing the first-round monkey off our backs."

Watching Stallings press-conference post-championship game, you had to really take to heart what he said about this team. Sometimes they aren't always there mentally, but when they are, look out. That is really the key to this game.

Unlike Vanderbilt's previous two match-ups, Harvard is not especially good at Vanderbilt's greatest weaknesses, which are protecting the ball and allowing put-backs and offensive rebounds. Giant Killers, ESPN's March blog, loves us because of these factors. The reason is because they are of the opinion that, in order for an underdog to knock off a higher seed, the underdog has to create more possessions. Harvard is the anti-thesis of that philosophy. They want to play a slower, half-court based game, take high percentage shots inside the line, and lock down on the inside. To Harvard's credit, they've done it very very well.

Unfortunately for Harvard, that's not a bad thing for Vanderbilt, who loves the half-court game, particularly on defense. Further complicating things for Harvard is that there isn't a single position where they will have a talent advantage over Vanderbilt. Tommy Amaker has done a great job coaching this team, and it's very impressive that he's punched Harvard's ticket for the first time since 1946. But, against inferior competition, they aren't better in any significant statistical category, and are in fact a decent amount worse in offensive efficiency, which weights for strength of opponents. Harvard will try to score around the rim a decent amount, which has been successful against Vanderbilt in the past. Florida State allowed only 46 points against the Crimson, which is probably the most comparable opponent they've faced.

I wish I could go into in depth, but here's the bottom line. Harvard isn't better by a substantial margin in any significant statistical category. They aren't better than us from the eye test perspective. This is a game that Vanderbilt is, rightfully, favored in by 6.5. Ken Pom gives us a 66% chance of winning. The only question that matters is the mentality. Which team will show up? Based on what these guys have shown me, I believe the team that beat Kentucky will, and I believe that we'll no longer hear about "losing the first-round of the tournament".