A little note to whichever three, four or five seed gets tapped to play Belmont in the first round of this year's NCAA basketball tournament: The selection committee hates you. After throttling Atlantic Sun Cinderella North Florida by 41 in the conference tournament finals, the Bruins head into March Madness with a sparkling 30-4 record. Those four losses came to in-state rivals: two to Tennessee (one by a single point), one to Vandy and one to Lipscomb in the amped-up church-league game that is the Battle of the Boulevard. And it's not like Belmont lost badly: Three of the four were by nine points, and two of them — the Vandy loss and the first game against Tennessee — were by identical scores, 85-76.
In any case, the Bruins are a savvy pick when searching a tournament bugbear — unless, of course, they play another team from the Volunteer State. That seems unlikely for many reasons, chief among them that the selection committee eschews repeat match-ups in the first round. Lipscomb won't make the tournament: The A-Sun doesn't merit two berths. And the big boys from Knoxville won't be high enough on the S-curve to take on Rick Byrd's charges. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Vols penciled as a nine seed heading into this weekend's SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
Then there are the Commodores. Lunardi has the Black-and-Gold at a six seed. A nice run in Atlanta could move them up a notch, but a one-and-done could see them slide.
That's not a glib assessment. These Commodores are tough to figure. Coach Kevin Stallings boasts All-SEC first-teamer John Jenkins, the latest vintage of the sweet-shooting, high-scoring type of athlete Vandy seems to churn out as regularly as Charlie Sheen spouts hipster T-shirt slogans. Festus Ezeli is one of the most improved players in the country. Jeff Taylor has the ability to take over a game late (if only he'd do it consistently).
For every thrilling Vandy victory, though, there's a head-scratching collapse. That makes the Commodores vulnerable — again — in March. In their losses this season, Vandy has shown a remarkable ability to fall apart at the worst times, to go seemingly hours of the second half without making a basket. These are exactly the kinds of situations where Jenkins should drain a key three or Taylor should drive and dunk to grab some momentum. But it just doesn't seem to happen.
The Commodores have a chance to either repeat last year's quick exit by the hand of a small conference team or make a deep run, but there's no telling. On paper, this is a team built for March: great shooting, solid inside presence, smart guard play. Unfortunately, games aren't played on paper. Even more unfortunately, these games won't be played in the friendly confines of Memorial Gym.
Ultimately, Vandy is the is-what-it-is of the basketball world, the strange case of a team that is neither overrated nor underrated. Right now, they're just rated. The pending NCAA tournament will decide which adverbial prefix is appended.
Meanwhile, the 'Dores' West Nashville neighbors will sneak up on someone. Rick Byrd's success on the Boulevard is starting to gain national notice, and the Bruins will not be saddled with the 15 seed as they were in 2008, when Justin Hare's heave went just, well, a hair wide, allowing Duke to escape 71-70 in the first round.
This year's sterling 30-4 mark and the eye-popping conference-final victory are going to move the Bruins up a few spots on the seed line. And we'll know exactly whom the NCAA hates the most.