|The Commodores know just how great things will be when Ezeli returns. 'It'll be a lot different.' (US Presswire)|
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was the full-fledged Vandy hype machine for the entire offseason. Just about everyone had the Commodores somewhere amongst the nation's top 10 teams.
Now, just two weeks into the season, Kevin Stallings' club has become an afterthought. The Forgotten Team.
First came the lackluster setback to Cleveland State, which resulted in Vandy tumbling out of the top 10. Then the Commodores were carved up by a mediocre N.C. State team for 79 points on Saturday and barely hung on for the victory. On Monday night, there were 22 turnovers and the need for a last-second pull-up jumper from Brad Tinsley to dispatch Oregon State, 64-62.
These guys hardly have the look and feel of a group that can make some noise in the SEC, never mind a team to be taken seriously come March (The Commodores haven't gotten out of the first round since 2007.)
But there's a valid reason for the struggles.
His name is Festus Ezeli.
The Commodores have a trio of pro prospects -- Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins. Take one off the team and these guys look, well, like just about every other team hovering around the Top 25.
"He's as important to us as a guy like Jared Sullinger is to Ohio State," Stallings said after his team knocked off Oregon State on Monday night to win the Legends Classic. "I'm not saying he's as good, but he gives us the same presence. You have to game plan for him."
"He has the ability to compromise the defensive integrity more than most people," he added. "You can throw it into him and he can get tough baskets and get to the line."
Put all three on the court together and the defense will no longer resemble a matador at a bullfight.
Put all three on the court together and Jenkins and Taylor will get something that Vandy hasn't seen much of thus far this season: Open looks.
"It's different," admitted Jenkins, arguably the best pure shooter in the nation. "Guys aren't going to respect Josh [Henderson] and Steve [Tchiengang] like they do with Festus."
However, during this trip to New Jersey, Stallings has made one thing clear -- over and over: "We're not using this as an excuse," he said. "We've got to win with what we've got."
But the 6-foot-11 Ezeli, whose six-game NCAA suspension concludes Friday against Monmouth, will likely return in about two or three weeks after his injured right knee heals. Then the nation will be able to adequately evaluate what was not long ago a highly regarded Vanderbilt Commodores team.
Ezeli is one of the elite big men in the nation. He's big, strong, can score in the post -- and is also terrific on the defensive end.
No, he's not John Henson defensively -- and he's not Sullinger on the offensive end.
But I'll put him up there with just about any big man who it comes to affecting the game on both ends of the court.
Taylor is a terrific piece, an athletic wing who is at his best as a complementary scorer and a lock-down defender.
Jenkins is a knock-down shooter who has expanded his game, but is best making shots off one or two dribbles.
"It's interesting how quickly after we lost to Cleveland State that people were talking about how we're overrated," Stallings said. "But nobody would rank us in the top 10 if we didn't have Festus."
It's because the Commodores are just another team without their standout big man. Sure, Jenkins and Taylor are both pros -- and both could wind up as NBA players someday -- but there are plenty of other fringe top 25 teams that can make the same statement.
N.C. State's C.J. Leslie attacked Vanderbilt on the interior -- and Oregon State did the same on Monday night. The Commodores are a solid rebounding team without Ezeli in the lineup -- and don't have anyone that can block or even alter shots.
But that won't be the case when Ezeli returns to the lineup.
"It'll be a lot different," Jenkins said. "Guys can't just face-guard me and Jeff all game."
And Tinsley will be more efficient with someone to lob the ball up to who can go up and get it.
But for now, the preseason expectations are history. Gone. No one is talking about the Commodores as an elite-level team. In fact, few are talking about them at all. Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne are getting increased playing time -- and expanded roles -- and that could help Vanderbilt down the road. Freshmen guards Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson will also develop and give Stallings depth in the backcourt.
"To be honest, it's really not a big deal," Jenkins said of quickly becoming forgotten. "It's back to the way it is."
But that will change -- as soon as Ezeli returns.