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Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt preview: analysis, players to watch, prediction

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The Commodores are three-point dependent, almost to a fault.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

CBS made Northwestern wait until the final region of the 2017 NCAA Tournament field to hear its name called for the first time in program history, but that didn’t limit the celebration in Evanston. Now, the Wildcats are tasked with slowing down a Vanderbilt team that is lethal from beyond the arc.

Both teams had a nice conference tournament win (over Maryland and Florida, respectively) to lock up their bids to the NCAA Tournament. They were each ousted in the ensuing semifinals, however.

They’ll meet on Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City at 3:30 p.m. CST on TBS. Here’s everything you need to know about the Commodores before tip-off:

Vanderbilt at a glance

  • Record: 19-15 (10-8 SEC)
  • RPI: 38 (NU is 51)
  • KenPom: 34 (NU is 39)
  • Good wins (ranks from KenPom): vs. No. 9 Florida (3 times), vs. No. 17 Iowa State, at No. 38 Arkansas, vs. No. 31 South Carolina
  • Bad losses: vs. No. 80 Bucknell, vs. No. 77 Ole Miss, at No. 163 Missouri
  • Head coach: Bryce Drew, first season. 19-15 with Vanderbilt, 143-64 in his career. Previous head coaching position(s): Valparaiso from 2011-2016

Players to Watch

  • Matthew Fisher-Davis, junior guard (13.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 37.2% 3FG)

Fisher-Davis is Vanderbilt’s leading scorer and one of four players averaging double digit points. Efficiency is not Fisher-Davis’ strength; the junior takes over 10 shots a night and hits at just over a 40 percent clip from the field. He has struggled down the stretch as well, reaching double figures in just two of Vanderbilt’s final six games.

Additionally, Fisher-Davis was benched twice earlier this season by Drew, and did not make the trip to Arkansas in early February due to a violation of athletic department policy. He’s somewhat of an eclectic scorer and has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor but is a shooter first and foremost, taking nearly seven three-point attempts per game.

  • Jeff Roberson, junior forward (11.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 apg)

Roberson has seen his minutes and his numbers increase each year in Nashville. At 6-foot-6, he’s a bit undersized for a power forward, but his 18 percent defensive rebounding rate leads the team. Offensively, Roberson’s biggest strength is his ability to stretch the floor and the Commodores need him to make shots. Vanderbilt only won four games in which he didn’t make a three.

  • Luke Kornet, senior center (13.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.4-4.6 3PM-3PA)

The biggest test for Northwestern’s front court will assuredly be Kornet. The senior is 7-foot-1 and will be a handful for Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson to deal with. He isn’t a force on the glass, though, but is a huge part of Vanderbilt’s offense. He takes over 10 shots per game, nearly five of which are from beyond the arc.

One of the Commodores’ best attributes is the top-to-bottom shooting they boast from all positions. Kornet is no exception and even shoots over 85 percent from the free throw line. On the defensive end, Kornet uses his size effectively. His 6.6 percent block rate is good for 87th in the country.

  • Riley LaChance, junior guard (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.9 apg)

The junior point guard is the leader of this team and, like Roberson and Kornet, plays over 30 minutes a night. He’s also Vanderbilt’s most efficient shooter, as his 49.3 three-point percentage is good for ninth nationally. However, he does commit around two turnovers a game, so ball pressure can throw him off his game and limit the good looks he gets.

  • Joe Toye, sophomore forward (6.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.1 apg)

The sophomore from Chicago was the No. 6 player in Illinois (per 247 Sports) in the 2015 recruiting class. As Drew has become much more comfortable using Toye down the stretch of the season, the 6-foot-7 wing has seen his minutes increase drastically. He played over 30 minutes per game in the SEC Tournament. He also shoots nearly 41 percent from three. Sense a trend?

  • Nolan Cressler, senior guard (7.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.8 apg)

Cressler is Vanderbilt’s sixth man, capable of spelling Fisher-Davis at the two or Toye at the three and shoots 52 percent from the field. Vanderbilt is 10-4 when Cressler reaches double figures, and as a senior, he’s become one of Drew’s glue guys. The Cornell transfer is also a 43 percent three-point shooter.

Game Analysis

This is a good draw for Northwestern. It was surprising to see Vanderbilt as a No. 9 seed as most brackets had the Commodores pegged as a 10. With that said, it’s hard to overlook the Commodores’ strength of schedule. They fell to NCAA Tournament teams Marquette, Bucknell, Butler, Minnesota, Middle Tennessee and Dayton, all before SEC play, so it would be a massive understatement to say Vanderbilt is battle tested.

What got Vanderbilt back to the Big Dance in Drew’s first season in Nashville was three-point shooting. Vandy has made made 337 triples, the seventh-most in the country, and every player in the rotation can knock one down. The Commodores aren’t inefficient from three either, shooting just under 38 percent as a team, which is 52nd nationally. They also get to the foul line a lot and convert when they get there, going 77.6 percent from the charity stripe on the season.

Thus, this game figures to be won or lost from the perimeter. Vanderbilt does not have a good enough interior scoring presence to withstand a cold shooting game. Northwestern’s perimeter defense will be put to the test, and if it passes, Drew’s team will struggle to put up points. That’s when the Commodores are vulnerable and, ultimately, beatable.

Prediction

  • KenPom prediction: Vanderbilt 65, Northwestern 64
  • My prediction: Northwestern 68, Vanderbilt 60