They both have smarts, but Vanderbilt fans want to savor life as a spoiler.
Northwestern became a touching tale with the Wildcats crashing the NCAA Tournament for the first time, ending a ridiculous 78-year drought. But Commodores fans want to dance past this battle of the brains and live to see the second round.
“Yeah, we would love to play spoiler,” said Kenny Broeker, a Vanderbilt junior who is a medicine, health and society major. “Sure, they got there. But we don’t want to let them keep advancing.”
The NCAA Tournament’s first week is a time when Cinderellas and sentimental stories take center stage. The No. 8 seed Wildcats enter their West Region first-round game against the No. 9 seed Commodores on Thursday in Salt Lake City with all the charm of a prom queen. They’re radiant after a memorable 23-11 run through the regular season and Big Ten Tournament. Plus they’re easy to root for after cameras captured their Selection Sunday spectacle in Evanston, Ill., where purple-clad people celebrated like anyone should after stumbling upon fresh water in Death Valley.
But Vanderbilt fans have a message for all entranced by Northwestern’s warm-and-fuzzy narrative: Hey, we’re coming too.
“You know everybody outside the city of Nashville is probably rooting for Northwestern in this one,” said Steve Amalfe, a Vanderbilt senior who is a human and organizational development major. “But it would be fun for us to play that spoiler role, because we’ve also been through a lot this season, and I think there are a lot of storylines for us as well, in terms of how we started, we got a new coach, a new kind of program going. It would be really cool if we could get this win. I think it’s a pretty good matchup for us. I was thinking, ‘Maybe they’ll get caught up in all the surrounding atmosphere and not really be ready to play.’ ”
It’s understood if the Commodores’ story becomes lost in Northwestern’s Lake Michigan-sized shadow before tip-off at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The spotlight only is so big, and this is a time for the Wildcats to shine.
But here’s a quick primer for those interested in the less-decorated half of this Mensa Matchup:
- Vanderbilt is 19-15 under first-year coach Bryce Drew, who has led the Commodores to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, after they lost to Wichita State in the First Four in 2016 under then-coach Kevin Stallings
- Vanderbilt had two players selected in the 2016 NBA Draft’s first round, Wade Baldwin IV (17th overall) and Damian Jones (30th overall), but Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 points per game) and Luke Kornet (13.2 ppg) have done most of the offensive heavy-lifting this season
- The Commodores went on a tear after falling to 12-13 following an embarrassing loss to Missouri on Feb. 11, winning seven of their next nine games, a run that included two victories in the SEC Tournament.
But don’t dare allow Vanderbilt to be overlooked.
Commodores in harmony
“Based on how Vanderbilt and Northwestern have been trending lately, I think Vanderbilt has a great chance to win and should be the solid favorite,” Robbie Weinstein, sports editor of The Vanderbilt Hustler, wrote in an email. “For as mediocre as the Commodores were early in the season, they’ve been playing great basketball since their ugly road loss to Missouri. I think fans are confident based mostly on Vanderbilt’s impressive recent play, but Northwestern’s 5-7 record since February started is equally important.
“I think Vanderbilt fans are definitely embracing the dark side to a degree by getting to play spoiler in this game. For students here in particular, there’s a sense of competition on the academic side of things with schools like Northwestern and Duke. The student bodies have different personalities, and that contributes as well. I can’t speak for every Vanderbilt student, but lots of people here would love any chance to get one over on Northwestern.”
That chance is coming. For the Commodores, the satisfaction of placing a bold “THE END” on Northwestern’s storybook season would be sweet.
A victory would be only the second for Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament since it appeared in the Sweet 16 during the 2006-07 season. The Commodores haven’t enjoyed a Big Dance delight since beating Harvard in 2012.
“Oh, absolutely, we want to play spoiler,” said Graham Stewart, associate vice chancellor for alumni relations at the Vanderbilt Alumni Association. “We want to get as far as we can into it. I never want to attack a team. But yeah, we’ll go as far as we can.
“I think it’s a really cool matchup, given the similarities of the schools. We’re the only privates in each of our conferences. Northwestern wasn’t expected to be in, I think. So they’ve just had a great season.”
Anyone who’s looking for a flashy and fast-paced contest Thursday might need to make plans to put the nearest remote control to good use. Vanderbilt enters 221st in the country by averaging 71.3 points per game, and Northwestern is 230th by averaging 71.1.
This stare-down in Salt Lake City could become a molar-gnashing, grind-it-out experience for both fan bases, one that could require a huge exhale when the heart rate finally calms down.
For Vanderbilt faithful, a victory earned would be fulfillment gained — no matter how many heartbeats are skipped along the way.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotion surrounding them, but there’s going to be a lot of emotion surrounding us, too,” Broeker said. “First year under Bryce Drew, we want to set the stage for the future. It already looks bright, but it would look even better if we advanced a couple more rounds.”
Northwestern owns the spotlight, but Vanderbilt fans want to claim the final word.