SALT LAKE CITY — We're not so different, you and I.
Northwestern and Vanderbilt might not be the warring forces Austin Powers and Dr. Evil were, but the two schools do clash Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And as the head coaches for both sides pointed out, they're not so different.
"To me there's a lot of similarities in the two teams," Northwestern's Chris Collins said Wednesday afternoon. "You've got good kids who play hard, play together. And if you look at their body of work, especially over the last month of the season, they've played some outstanding basketball with some big-time wins. We know what's going to be ahead of us."
"I definitely think there are some similarities," Vanderbilt's Bryce Drew said. "There's 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. I guess we'll see just how similar when the game starts. But they definitely — watching film, we try to do some things that are similar."
For most, the immediate similarity that comes to mind when thinking of these two schools is their academic traditions, making Thursday's game a sort of "nerd bowl," or at least that's what it would be called if this were a football game.
The academic credentials of both schools were a talking point Wednesday, one that couldn't be avoided when during lock-room media availability, Northwestern big man Barret Benson was poring over notes while studying for a final exam.
"I think that's one of the things that makes Vanderbilt, Northwestern, unique places. The student-athlete has to really perform at a high level on both areas to make it at our schools," Drew said. "And even on this trip we have study hall. We have players that are working on homework and different things. When we took the job we were excited to go recruit that type of student-athlete that knew that they were going to have to put a lot of work in the classroom, also."
"We have guys right now that are working on getting extensions to their finals or typing papers, because we're on the quarter system, so our finals are during this week. And I would say that's a challenge that not everyone has to face," Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin said. "We try to do the best in both categories. It's definitely something that is a little different at Northwestern, but it doesn't affect how we play."
But when 40 minutes run out Thursday, there will be no quiz-bowl bonus round where one of the teams can steal a win with knowledge of physics and world history. Thursday will be about basketball.
There are similarities there, too. Northwestern point guard Bryant McIntosh said it will be like the Wildcats are playing a version of themselves.
"They execute their defenses similar to the way we defend. So it will be a lot like playing ourselves or a very good team," McIntosh said. "They could give us a lot of problems with the way they shoot the ball. They're a very skilled 3-point shooting team, one through five. So we've compared it to guarding a team like a Michigan, in our league, just looking for similarities. But we have a tough task on our hands."
"They're very disciplined, they spread you out. They can really shoot the ball. And they feast on teams that make mistakes against them, especially defensively. If you don't communicate well, if you're not locked in, they're going to find the open guy, especially at the 3-point line they can be devastating when they get it going from there," Collins said. "It's going to be a tough challenge, but our guys, we've had a couple of days to really lock in on preparation, kind of get through the hoopla and the excitement of all the selection show and things like that and get back to work on the practice floor, and we're here to try to win the game."
When it comes to what Northwestern can specifically expect Thursday, Vanderbilt shoots a lot of 3s. The Commodores are seventh in the country in made 3-pointers, with 337 of them in their 34 games. The Cats would figure to have a defensive edge, though, ranking 34th in the country in scoring defense. Vandy has some size, which could come into play should Northwestern big man Dererk Pardon find himself in foul trouble. Pardon compared some of Vandy's bigs to Michigan's Moe Wagner on Wednesday.
"Our communication is going to be very important and vital if we're going to be able to win this game just because they can give us a lot of difficulties with their five man that can stretch the floor and knock down open 3s, and also their guards," McIntosh said. "We have to do a great job on the ball, keeping them out of the paint. And it's going to be a tough task. But defense wins championships, right? So that's the one thing we've talked about in the locker room is our defense has to be really good in order for us to move on in this tournament."
Comparing Vandy to Michigan might end up being a good strategy for Northwestern. The Cats beat the Wolverines in epic fashion near the end of the regular season with that court-length pass and buzzer-beating bucket.
Of course, Vandy coach Bryce Drew has his own big-shot reputation. He made one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history when he played at Valparaiso back in 1998.
Northwestern, obviously, is short on NCAA tournament experience. This is the program's first-ever trip to the Big Dance in nearly eight decades of waiting. So the hype will be there when the Cats take the March Madness court for the first time. Vanderbilt played and lost in the First Four a season ago, ending its own three-year tournament drought. So there's a little more experience there, but not much.
The secret weapon in the experience game might actually be Collins, who spent a combined 17 seasons at Duke as a player and assistant. When you spent more than a decade and a half with Coach K, you tend to know what the NCAA tournament is all about.
If that can give Northwestern an edge in this matchup of similar teams, maybe the Cats will also be able to pick up their first-ever NCAA tournament win on Thursday.
"We know what's at stake," Collins said. "You've got to be at your best this time of year because everyone is really good."