Vanderbilt basketball has finally made the big time - we've got a star player suspended by the NCAA.
Redshirt senior center Festus Ezeli has been suspended for the first six games of the season for a violation of NCAA rules. The apparent story behind the violation stems back to this summer. Ezeli was on a trip with some college friends, some of whom had shared time at Vandy with the big man and already graduated. At some point during the trip, an undisclosed alumnus footed the bill for one of Ezeli's meals and his hotel room for the night. Whether this was an unscrupulous booster or just one of his generous classmates is unknown at the moment. One thing, however, is clear - if you see any Vandy basketball players on the road this year, the best thing you can offer them is just a handshake.
Ezeli will serve a six-game suspension at the beginning of the season, which will keep him out of three contests against opponents from BCS conferences. Notably, he'll miss the TicketCity Legends Classic, a preseason tournament that features storied programs like North Carolina State and Texas. The Commodores had been favored to win that bracket, but their odds are surely taking a hit without their best interior player on the floor.
The team will have to band together to play through the big Nigerian's absence. Fortunately, this 2011-2012 squad is deep enough to keep chugging along without Ezeli for the first two weeks of the season. For Vanderbilt to start out 6-0, they'll have to rely on their freshmen and bench players to keep this team going. Let's look at who will earn Festus's minutes as he begins his term as the biggest member the Spirit of Gold has ever had for Vandy's first six games.
Steve Tchiengang - Tchiengang's transition to starting center would be an easy one if not for his ongoing recovery from offseason ankle surgery. The senior missed the team's Memorial Madness scrimmages and is still working to get back to full strength after playing through the injury last season. Tchiengang has the bulk and the heart to defend down low along with a court-stretching shooting game that can present matchup problems for opponents. However, he's not a true center like Ezeli and lacks the shot-blocking instincts that this team relies on in the post.
Tchiengang is this team's best option to take Festus's place. Unfortunately, his still-healing ankle may limit his minutes and force Kevin Stallings to head to his bench early and often. That would open the door for...
Josh Henderson - Henderson is the team's other true center, and he's the heir apparent to Ezeli's post in 2012-2013. He's got legitimate height for the position at 6'11", but he's still working to fill out a skinny frame that can leave him vulnerable in the paint. This is unfortunate, since the redshirt freshman has strong instincts and good mobility to lock down his defensive rotations. He's a better natural shot-blocker than Tchiengang, but his ability to capitalize on this in the NCAA will depend on his preparation and effectiveness in maintaining position against opposing post players.
He has developed his game over the course of his first year at Vandy, but there's still lots of room for the 19-year-old to grow. He'll be thrown right into the fire over the course of these six games without Ezeli, especially when you consider Tchiengang's gimpy ankle. He's got the talent and a lot of potential, but the big question is whether or not one redshirt year has been enough to develop him into a rotational player for a top ten team in the NCAA. If he's ineffective, then, look for Kevin Stallings to turn to...
Three Guard Sets - Vanderbilt can play effectively without a true center in the starting lineup. In fact, that's what got this team to the Sweet Sixteen back in 2007. Remember the good ol' days of Gordon-Cage-Foster-Byars-Neltner?
This could have been difficult for the Commodores in 2010, but this year's team has a pair of impact freshman players who could make guard-heavy lineups a staple of Stallings's early-season sets. Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker will add much needed depth to the backcourt, especially defensively. Johnson has great size for a point guard and Parker is being touted as a lockdown defender on Jeffery Taylor's level. And, lest we forget, this team has the ever-developing and super-exciting sophomore Kyle Fuller waiting in the wings as well.
Neither player has earned a starting spot yet, but both have performed well enough in preseason workouts to generate some buzz. This team could end up scrapping their traditional center-based lineup in order to trot out a quick and hard-shooting backcourt. Lance Goulbourne proved that he can rebound against some of the country's top teams, and Jeffery Taylor has the strength (though not the height) to shadow opposing power forwards. If Tchiengang and Henderson aren't effective, look for this team to trot out the small ball lineup and shoot their way to victory.
This flexibility in the backcourt is an excellent benefit for Stallings and his crew. Here are some of the potential lineups the 'Dores could use if they are looking to go small:
With a deep rotation, the possibilites here are immense.
Rod Odom - Surprise, Rod! Now you're the primary backup at the 3 AND the 4. Odom had a strong freshman season and has added a little bulk in an effort to be stronger around the rim. He's still more effective at small forward, but his offensive game and shooting range fits into Stallings's plans as a PF and can keep opposing defenses honest while stretching the floor. With Tchiengang moving to center in Ezeli's absence, Odom's minutes for the first six games of the season will likely increase.
Shelby Moats and James Siakam - Thanks to this team's depth, both players looked to be fringe rotation players in 2011-2012. Now, we may see Moats burning a potential redshirt season to give the Commodores another body who can play in the paint and hold his position. Siakam, a tough power forward rolled into a small forward's frame, could end up trying to play against the big boys as well. He's still developing an offensive game, but he's a tenacious rebounder and defender, and that alone could be enough to earn him significant time in his first eligible season with the Commodores.
Combined, these two would make one hell of a forward. Moats has the height, shooting touch, and outside game that has become a staple of Vanderbilt's big men. Siakam plays the game like a 6'6" Dennis Rodman. However, it's likely that only one of them will fill the void left by Ezeli's absence in the team's important games during that six-contest stretch. The early money is on Siakam thanks to his experience and Moats's redshirt eligibility, but there's still lots of work to be done before tipoff against Oregon in three and a half weeks.