By Matt Norlander
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — If you don’t think Vanderbilt is a top-15 team right now, then you’ve got company: ‘Dores head coach Kevin Stallings.
“Of course we’re not,” Stallings said. “Take a first-round draft choice off of any top of the top 10 teams in the country and see if they’re a top team then. And it’s not like we profess to be.”
Kentucky and North Carolina aside, the man seems to have a point. Still, plenty of talented teams without a premier player can — and are usually inspired to — play better defense.
Vandy got an 86-79 win Saturday night the Legends Classic over N.C. State, but it came primarily because John Jenkins did what he does: shoot the dimples out of the ball (28 points — on a bad ankle) and bail out his team after some bad defense kept the game closer than it should have.
And that’s the issue: Vandy’s defense. It’s not good, not even bad right now — it’s alarmingly deficient. The team is allowing opponents to clear 50 percent shooting from 2-point range with ease through four games. What's more, the interior, as you might expect, lacks intimidation. Without Festus Ezeli — the NBA-talent big man who’s about a month away from returning — the Commodores don't have the inside presence and semblance of self on the defensive end that Stallings, frankly, is mad as hell over.
He was just as perturbed by the Ezeli issue, because the team can’t do anything about that right now. It’s playing without its big man, and it’s got to do more than tread water without him.
“[Festus] ain’t going to be here Monday, he’s not going to play next Friday or the following Monday or the following Friday,” Stallings said. “If they’re sitting around waiting for Festus, we’ve got problems.”
The Festus talk didn’t stop there. His name got dropped about 30 times in a five-minute span.
“We’re foolish if we sit around and wait for him to show,” Stallings said. “We don’t have Festus. We’re not going to bitch and complain, and we don’t have this, we don’t have that. We have what we have. And we have to play better defensively. We’re a pretty good offensive team, but we suck on defense.
“So, until we get better defense, it doesn’t matter who we put other there. But we better get help before that, or we’re going to have a bunch of numbers in that right hand column (the loss column, obviously) we’re not very excited about. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re going to be a good team.”
N.C. State got C.J. Leslie back for the first game this season — he sat out per an NCAA suspension — and looked great. The Wolfpack moved about the floor and passed over Vandy’s D at will.
“We had way too many turnovers that led to unguardable baskets,” Stallings said.
It got the point where Stallings joked he was “looking for any reason to give my defense credit.”
Vandy, in a way, got away with this one due to Jenkins’ awesome shooting and some helpful play by Brad Tinsley, who put up 14 points that came in spots when the ‘Dores needed it. It should be added: Steve Tchiengang got 11 boards, which was the second-most critical aspect to Stallings’ team avoiding the consolation game Monday night.
“We didn’t rob the bank, because we got to the foul line 33 times,” Stallings said. “We did some good things, and we’ve got good players, but we, like we do a lot, we just let people get their head up, get in a comfort zone and as soon as somebody becomes confident, it becomes a lot harder to guard them. When Jenkins got going tonight, he became a lot harder for them to defend.”What I came away believing: Without Ezeli, Vanderbilt’s not elite. This won’t mean much in January if the team’s healthy, but unless all the pieces are on the floor, Vanderbilt may not even be the third-best team in the SEC. Plenty of people think we and others have overrated Vandy, that this team isn't high-caliber and most likely won't ever become a group it's never proven itself to be. Fair critique. Tonight, that shined true, but without Ezeli, the critique remains out to lunch.