For the second straight season, Vanderbilt is back in the NCAA Tournament and once again headed out West.
The Commodores (23-10) are the fifth seed out of the Southwest Region and will play 12th-seeded Richmond in the first round on Thursday in Denver. Vanderbilt fell to Murray State in the first round of the tournament last year in San Jose, Calif.
Richmond (27-7) is in the tournament for the second straight season. It won the Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament over Dayton on Sunday. The Spiders lost to Saint Mary’s in the first round last year.
Vanderbilt and Richmond have met just twice, with the Commodores winning both games — one in Nashville and one in Richmond — in 1977 and 1978. Vanderbilt is 0-2 all-time in the tournament against teams from the Atlantic 10. The Commodores lost to Temple in the Sweet 16 in 1993 and fell to Xavier in the first round in 1997.
Vanderbilt is in the tournament for the 12th time in school history, and it's the fifth time in 12 years under coach Kevin Stallings that the Commodores have reached the NCAA Tournament. In his first two trips at the helm — 2004 and 2007 — Stallings guided Vanderbilt to the Sweet 16. Their last two appearances in the tournament, however, were short-lived. Vanderbilt was a fourth seed in both and lost in the first round to 13 seeds Siena (2008) and Murray State (2010).
If the Commodores beat Richmond, they will play either fourth-seeded Louisville (25-9) or No. 13 seed Morehead State (24-9). The Eagles won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament last week in Nashville and have the nation’s top rebounder in Kenneth Faried.
The Commodores enter the tournament this year having lost four of their last seven. But they boosted their confidence over the weekend with consecutive wins in the SEC Tournament. They played three games in three straight days, defeating LSU and Mississippi State before falling to SEC regular-season champion Florida in the semifinals on Saturday.
“We got better this week,” Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli said. “We got tougher. Defensively we got better, offensively we got better. I think we are playing our best basketball right now.”
Against the Gators, who are a No. 2 seed in the Southeast Region, the Commodores shored up their defense, which was a problem in their loss to Florida in the final regular-season game the week before. Vanderbilt forced 11 first-half turnovers and held the Gators to just 28 points at halftime before guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker got hot. The duo scored a combined 33 points in the second half and led Florida into the tournament title game, where it lost to Kentucky on Sunday.
The fact they stayed with the conference’s best, though, gave the Commodores a much-needed lift heading into NCAA Tournament play.
“We need to continue the defensive effort going into the tournament,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “Obviously our offense is going to flow. We have a lot of talented players offensively. We just need to focus on defense and rebounding. Those are the two main things we struggled through all season. ... We have high confidence now. We feel like we are playing good basketball. We have to go into the tournament focused and work on the things we have to work on this week to get better. Go in and try to make a big run.”
Vanderbilt is one of five SEC teams to make the tournament — all from the league’s Eastern division. Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee join the Commodores. Tennessee (19-14) ended up as a No.9 seed in the West Region and will play the eighth-seeded Michigan Wolverines (20-13) from the Big Ten in the first round on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.