By Zac Ellis
SALT LAKE CITY - Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew admitted he found himself rooting for Northwestern as it made its run into the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats won a school-record 23 games and were rewarded with the program's first-ever trip to the Big Dance. They finished with a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time since 1968 and reached the conference tournament semifinals, where they fell to Wisconsin, 76-48.
But while Drew could appreciate Northwestern's Cinderella-like story, his perspective changed on Selection Sunday.
"Once the pairings got announced, I quickly switched to preparing to try to beat them," Drew said Wednesday.
Drew and the 9-seed Commodores will face No. 8 Northwestern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 3:30 CT on TBS. It's Vanderbilt second straight trip to the tournament, but the first under Drew's watch. (The `Dores dropped a First Four matchup with Wichita State last March.)
When the bracket was unveiled last weekend, Drew wasn't the only one who recognized the storyline that has surrounded Northwestern's season. Now, with an unusually bright spotlight on this first-round matchup, Drew's players expect plenty of energy when they tip off against the `Cats.
"We're expecting it definitely to be a high-energy game, and especially with Northwestern, just assuming a lot of alumni and people coming to the game," senior forward Luke Kornet said. "We're excited for it. We've enjoyed playing road games this year, and if it's like that then we'll be ready for it."
Northwestern could present a test for Vanderbilt, particularly on defense. The Wildcats ranks 36th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and they are even better (24th nationally) with an effective field-goal percentage of 46 percent.
Coach Chris Collins' squad can also make opponents pay on offense. Northwestern boast three players - forward Vic Law, guard Scottie Lindsey and guard Bryant McIntosh - who are prolific perimeter threats. Collins' squad takes care of the basketball, as well; the Wildcats' 15.9 turnover percentage ranks 27th in college basketball.
Drew said he sees parallels with his own team when he studies Northwestern film.
"I definitely think there are some similarities," Drew said. "There are a lot of very skilled players that can shoot the ball. Both teams run a lot of offensive actions. Both teams try to play a lot of help side defense. So there's definitely some similarities as you go, but I guess we'll see just how similar when the game starts."
Once a team that lived and died with the 3-point shot, Vanderbilt has hung its hat on defense over the last several weeks. That helped the `Dores turn around a season in which they started 8-10. Drew's crew won 10 of its final 14 games, advancing to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2013. They finished with six top-50 wins - including three against Florida - and 10 top-100 wins.
But now the bulk of Vanderbilt's NCAA Tournament team from a year ago hopes to author a longer stay in the Big Dance.
"We are aware how badly we played last year," junior Jeff Roberson sid. "We want to get a redo and play to the best of our ability. Coming out, we'll be ready to play."