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NCAA Tournament First Round: Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Northwestern Wildcats — Predictions, Previews and Prognostications

Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Wildcats, Missouri Tigers

The NCAA Tournament is finally here for the Northwestern Wildcats. How do they matchup with the Vanderbilt Commodores and can they extend their first trip.

When: Thurs., March 15, 2017; 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT
Where: Salt Lake City, Utah; Vivint Smart Home Arena (19,911)
TV: TBS
All-Time Series: Vanderbilt leads 4-1
Last Meeting: Vanderbilt won 86-66 (Dec. 3, 1992)
Line: Vanderbilt (-2)

The moment is finally here.

The tip off everyone could only dream of for so long will actually happen. The 8th-seeded Northwestern Wildcats will take on the 9th-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores in the NCAA Tournament.

The emotions from Sunday’s Selection Show have not quite dissipated. There is still a “pinch me” feeling about this whole thing. It cannot be real. Northwestern was not practicing on a court that said “March Madness” across center court on its Wednesday.

But they were. The darling team of the NCAA Tournament is actually here after such a long wait.

While fans till figuring out travel arrangements and exactly how does this NCAA Tournament thing work, the team is actually preparing for a game. A gam ethey believe they can win.

Northwestern has been saying “It’s Time” all year. They have been asking fans and each other to believe. The Wildcats are in Salt Lake City for this One Shining Moment . . . and they want more.

Chris Collins spoke to the thousands of fans who went to Welsh-Ryan Arena to share this moment as a community and said this bid was just the beginning of Northwestern basketball’s tournament legacy.

This was not a team that snuck into the Tournament by the skin of its teeth. This is a team that was in the field and has every expectation it can make noise.

The matchup is not an easy one. Vanderbilt, despite the most losses for an at-large bid in recent memory, has picked up some good wins. They feature a dominant and versatile big in Luke Kornett who is as adept protecting shots around the basket as he is stepping out to hit a jumper.

The Commodores fought tooth and nail to get into the Tournament too. And they have some experience being there. Just about every team in the NCAA does compared to Northwestern.

The Wildcats will be fighting two dangerous forces in their first NCAA Tournament berth. The first is the emotion and relief of finally making it. The second is a very game Vanderbilt team.

1 Burning Question: Will the Wildcats be overwhelmed by the stage?

Northwestern undeniably knows what this moment means. Chris Collins spent much of the season avoiding the question. He did not want his team distracted.

After the loss at Indiana, Collins knew there was no avoiding the elephant in the room. The Wildcats responded with the big win over the Wolverines and a tough battle against the Boilermakers. Northwestern followed that up with a big run at the Big Ten Tournament, dropping a 31-0 run on Rutgers and upsetting home-standing Maryland.

This stage, though. It is different. This for so long was the end goal. This was everything they wanted to accomplish. When Victor Law committed to Northwestern, he said this was the place he envisioned taking the team.

For Northwestern fans, getting to the Tournament was the end goal. No one even imagined winning a game.

For the players, there is the grand stage and the gravity of what they are participating in. Not to mention the added media responsibilities and unfamiliar setting. This is not like playing the Legends Classic at Barclays Center.

No one knows how Northwestern will handle this. It could very well be NU plays tight and pressured, just happy to be here. Or they could play just like it is any other game.

2 Key Stats

–37.7%: Vanderbilt is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, making 37.7 percent of their 3-point attempts this year. And the Commodores let it fly. Vanderbilt averages 26.3 3-pointers per game. Any team playing Vanderbilt has to watch the 3-point line. That includes center Luke Kornet. But the real weapons are Matthew Fisher-Davis (37 percent from beyond the arc) and Riley Lachance (43 percent from beyond the arc). To beat Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have to control the 3-point line.

–16.3: Northwestern missed Scottie Lindsey for a month. It was a big reason for the team’s February slide that seemed to have the team looking a bit shakier to get to this moment. Lindsey needed some time to get back. In the Big Ten Tournament last week, Lindsey looked like he was back. He averaged 16.3 points per game and made 52.9 percent of his shots. This was mostly without the 3-point shot. Safe to say Lindsey is back.

3 Key Players

Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt Center: A lot of what Vanderbilt does and a lot of the team’s success centers around Kornet. He averages 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. But his presence around the basket gives Vanderbilt an edge. While not a great athlete, he has good positioning and blocks 2.0 blocks per game. Dererk Pardon is going to have to keep him occupied.

Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Point Guard: Like Kornet, Northwestern will go as the junior point guard, Bryant McIntosh, will go. McIntosh has not been a paragon of consistency, but the ball is in his hands to control the pace and tempo of the game. He does not have to score much to be effective, he just has to get into the paint and occupy Kornet. Not to mention be smart about how he uses his patented floater and dumps off to Dererk Pardon and Sanjay Lumpkin.

Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt Shooting Guard: As noted before, Vanderbilt is a killer 3-point shooting team and no one is as lethal as Matthew Fisher-Davis. More than just his shooting, Davis is an athlete who becomes increasingly dangerous in transition. With the blocks Kornet can get, it creates plenty of run out opportunities for the Commodores. With the way they can spread the floor, that makes him dangerous off the dribble.

Prediction

These two teams grade out as pretty similar. Vanderbilt has some sneaky good athletes who work well around a central fulcrum and get hot from beyond the arc. This feels like a true 8/9 toss-up matchup.

The Commodores get a small edge with Kornet in the middle. But Pardon has been strong this year, particularly down the stretch. How Pardon handles that matchup will be key to whether Northwestern can get shots consistently. He has struggled with more powerful big men.

Kornet is not exactly big and powerful as a center. He is not quite the centers Pardon sees in the Big Ten. He will get his shots in too.

No, the difference in this game is at point guard with Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh has to be the one who keeps the team calm and even. This is his first NCAA Tournament and he is going to have to be the regulator for the Wildcats throughout the game.

He has done that in plenty of big games. And he is capable of hitting big shots. This one will be close to the end and could come down to what he does with the ball late.

Northwestern 70, Vanderbilt 68

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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