Vanderbilt-Texas A&M Preview
Though neither took the easiest path, both Texas A&M and Vanderbilt sit in desirable positions entering the SEC regular season's final day.
The 20th-ranked Aggies can clinch the conference tournament's top seed with a home win over the resurgent Commodores, who head into Saturday's matchup still with a shot of earning a share of the league title.
Texas A&M (19-11, 12-5) already has clinched at least a piece of its first SEC crown during a season in which it has endured plenty of ups and downs. The Aggies won their first seven league games, then lost their next five before regrouping with five consecutive victories - none bigger than a 79-77 overtime win over Kentucky on Feb. 20.
That result gives the Aggies the tiebreaker on the Wildcats should both win Saturday to finish tied for first place, providing extra incentive for the Aggies' senior core of Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins in their final Reed Arena game.
"They deserve a special night and an SEC title for the team because we work so hard," freshman center Tyler Davis said. "I really can't wait to play.''
Standing in the Aggies' way is the conference's other red-hot team. Vanderbilt (19-11, 11-6) has remained in the title chase by winning its last four, including last Saturday's 74-62 victory over then-No. 16 Kentucky that followed a pivotal road win over Florida on Feb. 23.
The Commodores could create a four-way tie for first should they win and LSU defeats Kentucky. Vanderbilt would be the No. 2 seed in that scenario, behind LSU and one spot ahead of Texas A&M.
Vanderbilt also could fall out of the top four, thereby losing a double-bye to the quarterfinals, if it loses and South Carolina wins at Arkansas.
Just getting to this point seemed unthinkable two months back, when the Commodores lost their first three league games and appeared a longshot for an NCAA Tournament bid. They've since won 11 of 14 as one of the SEC's most talented rosters has finally come together.
Among the top defensive teams throughout the league season, Vanderbilt averaged 73.8 points through 10 SEC games but has raised that mark to 81.9 while winning six of the last seven. Center Damian Jones is averaging 17.4 points on 66.3 percent shooting over that stretch, and the Commodores have been outstanding at taking care of the ball, committing eight or fewer turnovers in five of their last six.
"We've been doing very well," point guard Wade Baldwin IV said after Tuesday's 86-69 win over Tennessee. "We have two tremendous big men (Jones and Luke Kornet) that create a lot of space in the paint, and can rebound the ball. We have guys that can defend, and for that span we defended really well, got rebounds, and played Vanderbilt basketball."
The Commodores, second in the SEC in field goal percentage defense (38.4), held Texas A&M to 36.8 percent in a 77-60 victory in Nashville on Feb. 4. House and Jones, the Aggies' top two scorers, combined for 14 points on 3-of-21 shooting.
Vanderbilt, however, has lost 10 straight on the road to ranked teams since beating No. 14 Marquette on Dec. 29, 2011. Four of those defeats have come this season.
Texas A&M, 16-1 at home, has emerged from its midseason slump by regaining its defensive edge and ferociously attacking the glass. Leading the SEC in scoring defense, the Aggies are yielding 66.2 points per game over the streak while owning a plus-8.0 rebounding margin. They outrebounded Auburn 51-27 in Tuesday's 81-63 win.