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David Paschall | Chattanooga Times Free Press | March 15, 2016

March Madness: Vanderbilt, Wichita St. ready for First Four meeting

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Ready or not, here Vanderbilt goes.

A scattered season for Kevin Stallings and his Commodores will either continue or close tonight in Dayton, Ohio, when they face Wichita State (9:10 on truTV) in an NCAA basketball tournament "First Four" game.

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
 Vanderbilt is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012 and was expected to do so with a No. 18 preseason ranking in the Associated Press poll, but the Commodores are the third Southeastern Conference team in as many years having to advance the hard way.

Tennessee started out in Dayton two years ago and wound up winning three tournament games to reach the Sweet 16, and Ole Miss won its First Four game last year against BYU before getting thumped by Xavier.

"There are certainly different challenges in playing in this First Four game," Stallings said Monday. "I spoke with (Ole Miss coach) Andy Kennedy over the weekend, because they had this experience last year, but there is certainly a level of adrenaline that hits your team when your name comes up on the board and you have this opportunity.

"Having to play an extra game can be looked at a couple of different ways, but the way we're looking at it is that we're excited for the opportunity, and I think our guys will embrace that."

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Vanderbilt won 11 of 14 conference games following an 0-3 SEC start, but the Commodores lost their regular-season finale at Texas A&M and were upset by Tennessee last Thursday afternoon in the SEC tournament. Now they've been given second life, joining Kentucky and the Aggies as the league's lone representatives in the 68-team field.

"Everyone has the same chance to make a run," Commodores junior forward Luke Kornet said Sunday night in a news conference. "It's a great feeling knowing that we still have a shot."

The Commodores are facing a Wichita State program under Gregg Marshall that has become accustomed to making noise in March Madness. The Shockers went all the way to the Final Four in 2013 before losing to eventual champion Louisville in the national semifinal, and they were the Midwest region's top seed a year later before getting bounced by Kentucky in a thrilling second-round contest.

Last year, Wichita State knocked off the tradition-rich tandem of Indiana and Kansas before losing to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.

"One of the big things with Vandy is that a couple of their guys who are shooters just have to be confident shooters and let it go -- just shoot it," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday. "They have those guys, and when they're running their stuff -- they're already a pretty good defensive team because of their size -- that team can advance.

"I think they'll be fine. They beat us pretty good, and I really like their size and their guard play. They've just got to put it together and make a run."

A loss tonight by the Commodores would result in a 19-14 season that would be deemed mostly disappointing. A victory would clinch a 20-win season and a Thursday date with Arizona in Providence, R.I.

And as Tennessee showed in Cuonzo Martin's third and final year as coach, that's when the fun really takes off.

"We're going to have to defend at a high level, rebound at a high level and take care of the ball at a high level, and we've done all of those things this year," Stallings said. "I would be much more worried if we were consistently bad at something. We've been inconsistent at times, but we haven't been consistently bad at any particular facet of the game.

"It's been an interesting road for us that's been filled with a lot of bumps along the way, and we've drawn a team with a great deal of tournament experience and tournament success."

This article was written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

 

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