The oddsmakers favor Vanderbilt by 1 1/2 points. KenPom.com has Vandy winning 65-64.
So the only upset will be if this clash of brainy ballers goes double digits in either direction.
“Smart team, well-coached,” Joey Meyer said of Vanderbilt.
“Smart team, well-coached,” he said of Northwestern.
Meyer, the former DePaul coach who does color for WGN-AM 720’s NU broadcasts, chuckled and added: “(Vanderbilt) shoots 3s better. Northwestern is a little more athletic. When’s the last time I could say that?”
Here are three reasons to believe in each team:
Bombs away: The Commodores will spread the floor and try to create drive-and-kick 3-pointers. No SEC team attempted more 3s (26.3 per game) or hit them at a higher rate (37.7 percent). Center Luke Kornet even made 51 3s. Steve Lappas, who will help call Thursday’s game for TBS, said NU defenders must “really keep an eye on” Riley LaChance (49.3 percent) and Matthew Fisher-Davis.
Going streaking: The Commodores went 7-2 down the stretch, and one of the losses came at Rupp Arena after leading Kentucky by 19 in the first half. They clicked in the final five weeks after inserting Joe Toye, a 6-foot-7 guard from Young, into the starting lineup. Coach Bryce Drew cited Toye’s “athleticism, toughness, his length on defense. He’s able to get his hand on some balls, rebound and get us out in transition quickly.”
They might be giants: The 7-1, 250-pound Kornet is the NCAA’s all-time leader in 3s by a 7-footer (148) and Vanderbilt’s all-time leading shot-blocker (207). Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon is long and strong but is only 6-8.
Wingin’ it: When wings Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey are both scoring, the NU offense is a beast. Law and Lindsey crushed it against Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten tournament, a sign that Lindsey is finally over having to miss three weeks because of mono. (Worth noting: In the Wildcats’ last three wins, Law averaged 17 points; in their last four losses, 3.8.)
Big stage: The program’s best moment — ever — came at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Michigan. (Cue up “The Pass.”) Beyond that, the Wildcats often peaked at large venues: the Barclays Center (Texas and Notre Dame), United Center (Dayton), Value City Arena (Ohio State) and Verizon Center (Big Ten tournament).
Stop right there: Northwestern has the better defense, albeit only slightly in the KenPom.com efficiency ratings (36th versus 41st). Lappas believes Northwestern is, overall, the better team. But he offered a caveat given that, as you might have heard, the Wildcats have never played in an NCAA tournament.
“My big wonder: How will they be the first 10 minutes of the game?” he said. “Will they play to their capabilities? You can come out here, run all your stuff and end up with open (jumpers). If you don’t make ’em …”