NCAA Tournament First Four Preview: Will Wichita State Top Vanderbilt?

Vanderbilt and Wichita State both may have deserved better than the First Four but will meet in what should be an exciting game.

We won’t have to wait long for a great March Madness matchup.

11 seeds Wichita State and Vanderbilt will meet in Tuesday’s second First Four game in Dayton, and while both teams just barely made the Field of 68, they are among the better teams in the country.

Vanderbilt (19-3) is 20th in the country according to our nERD power ratings, while Wichita State (24-8) is 22nd. Both schools’ records suffered thanks to some tough breaks in close games, as the Commodores were 1-6 in two-score games and the Shockers were 2-6.

Wichita State though is fifth in the country in average scoring margin (+13.7), and Vanderbilt is tied for 29th (+9.4).

The Shockers own the nation’s top defense in terms of our efficiency ratings, and the 48th-best offense, while Vanderbilt is 44th on defense and 63rd on offense.

Before those two teams tip off, Florida Gulf Coast and Fairleigh Dickinson will get the Madness started in a battle of 16 seeds for the right to play North Carolina.

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Wichita State vs. Vanderbilt

The best matchup of the night might be Wichita State’s defense against Vanderbilt’s offense.

Aside from their top ranking in overall, opponent-adjusted defense, the Shockers are also in the top 10 in Effective Field Goal Percentage (44.4%), Turnover Rate, and Defensive Rebounding Rate. Fouling is the only area where they really struggle, as they are 329th in free throw attempts allowed per field goal allowed.

Wichita State has been very strong inside, as they are ninth in the country in two-point field goal percentage allowed (41.9%) and tied for 57th in shooting percentage allowed at the rim (54.2% according to Hoop-Math).

Despite a lineup that includes seven-footers Damian Jones and Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt’s offense is not really in a position to challenge Wichita State inside, as the Commodores are tied for 159th in shooting percentage at the rim (59.7%).

Vanderbilt, which is 44th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (53.5%), might be better equipped to take on the Shockers on the perimeter, as the Commodores are tied for 20th with a 38.8% three-point percentage.

While the Shockers only allow opponents to shoot 32.4% from the three-point range, they are also tied for 232nd in the three-point attempts allowed per field goal attempt allowed.

Despite the low percentage, Wichita State has been living dangerously, as three-point shooting is inherently random, making the denial of long range attempts a more effective way to defend the trey.

Opportunities will certainly be there for Vandy's leading-scorer Wade Baldwin (14.3 points per game, 41.4% three-point percentage), Jeff Roberson (45.5% three-point percentage), and Jeff Toye (42.1% on threes).

If the long-range shots are not falling, though, given Wichita State’s strengths elsewhere on defense, it could be a long night for Vanderbilt’s offense.

Wichita State’s offense is less impressive from a shot-making standpoint, posting just a 49.7% Effective Field Goal Percentage (tied for 203rd nationally), but does feature premier playmaker Fred VanVleet.

The senior guard is averaging 5.7 assists per game and has assisted 40.7% of his teammates’ field goals when he has been on the floor, giving him the nation’s fifth-best Assist Rate.

Led by VanVleet, the Shockers’ greatest strength is ball security, as they are tied for eighth in the country in Turnover Rate (12.8%). This advantage in terms of avoiding wasted possessions should be especially pronounced on Tuesday, as Vanderbilt’s 12.2% Turnover Rate on defense is tied for 346th.

Vanderbilt, though, is third in Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed (43.1%), combining good interior defense (42.7% on twos, 13th nationally) with the nation’s 29th-best Three-Point Attempt Rate.

Kornet led the SEC and is 18th in the country in Block Rate (10.5%), while Jones has a 5.8% Block Rate.

These strengths-versus-weaknesses essentially make the Wichita State offense versus the Vandy defense matchup a push, and while random variation could have a big impact at the other end of the court, the Shockers' defense has the edge on paper.

This leaves the Shockers as four-point favorites, though nERD sees this as a virtual push in the battle to face Arizona in the first round.

Florida Gulf Coast vs. Fairleigh Dickinson

FGCU (20-13) is back in the “Big Dance” for the first time since 2013, when “Dunk City” burst onto the scene by becoming the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.

They’ll have their work cut out for them to win two games this time around, but the 184th team in our power ratings (-1.05) does boast a defense that is in the 77th percentile nationally.

Fairleigh Dickinson (18-14), meanwhile, boasts the worst defense in the field, one that ranks 290th nationally and is in the 17th percentile. Overall, they rank 272nd in the country and come in at 6.6 points below average.

Gulf Coast (132nd in offense, 64th percentile) should have an easy time exploiting the Knights’ defense; Fairleigh Dickinson is tied for 281st in Effective Field Goal defense (51.7%), and the Eagles are tied for 85th on offense (52.1%).

The Eagles do most of their damage inside, ranking 347th in terms of Three-Point Attempt Rate, while tying for fourth in terms of percentage of shots taken at the rim (47.7%, per Hoop-Math; they shoot 59.6% at the rim, which is tied for 165th nationally).

Leading scorer Marc Eddy Norelia has helped lead the way here, as the 6'8" forward is 146-for-242 at the rim (60.3%) and is averaging 17.2 points per game.

Relative to the rest of their defense, the Knights are fairly competent at defending at the rim (58.0%) but allow a ton of penetration, ranking 22nd from the bottom in terms of percentage of shots allowed inside.

FGCU’s offense is close to average in terms of Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebounding Rate, and Free Throw Attempt Rate, and while the Fairleigh Dickinson defense is 45th in Turnover Rate, they are tied for 329th in Defensive Rebounding Rate and 336th in Free Throw Attempt Rate allowed.

Things should be more even at the other end of the floor, where Fairleigh Dickinson’s 141st-ranked offense meets the 184th-best defense in the country.

FDU has been an above-average three-point shooting team, making 36.5% of their shots from deep, despite not taking many (tied for 244th in Three-Point Attempt Rate). This could be an area where they have an edge, as the Gulf Coast defense is tied for 203rd in this measure.

This has not actually burned the Eagles so far this year, as they are tied for ninth in three-point percentage allowed (30.2%), but as mentioned, the more reliable way to defend the three-point line is to prevent three-pointers in the first place.

Gulf Coast is a 5.5-point favorite in both Vegas and in terms of nERD.