Vanderbilt dropped another heartbreaker last night, but the final result fails to show an important aspect of the Commodore defeat - the team's composure. This team stormed back from a 15 point deficit in hostile territory to take a late lead and had a few chances to close the Wildcats out as time ticked away. Unfortunately, the 'Dores couldn't convert these to open up a multiple possession lead and these missed opportunities came back to sink them in the end. Still, several developments arose that should give fans in Nashville some confidence for this team's postseason chances.
1. Brad Tinsley's steady hand guided this team back into the game. Without having to worry about Brandon Knight (thanks to Jeffery Taylor's denial defense on that end of the court), a fresh and dynamic Tinsley had one of his best games of the season despite playing against one of the most athletic backcourts in the country. He was the ballast that kept this team level after Kentucky pushed their lead to double-digits late in the first half.
This was a stark contrast from the player we saw just a week ago in Memorial Gym. Tinsley was tired and worn down against Tennessee, and his inability to initiate the team's offense created the opportunities that UT needed to post the comeback victory. Last night, a fresher and more motivated player ran the point for the Commodores, and his energy shone. Tins found Festus Ezeli in the paint to fuel the team's offense (four assists on Ezeli baskets) and ran it in himself whenever he found an opening for some ugly layups. Tinsley's development as a player may be lost in the team's storylines behind the emergence of Ezeli and John Jenkins, but the junior has made strides as a point guard in 2011 and will play a major role in this team's success in 2011 and beyond.
2. Jeffery Taylor is taking some (partially-deserved) heat from this loss. The junior's biggest problem in the eyes of fans is that he makes the easy stuff look hard and the hard stuff look easy. Last night's game was a solid summary of his season so far, as the lasting memory of his effect on the game will be a myriad of missed lay-ups to start the game, a negative series of plays that serves to erase the goodwill of the junior's solid play on the other end of the court.
Lost in that fray is Taylor's defense on Brandon Knight. The 6'7" small forward was called on to defend Kentucky's speedy point guard and deny him any open looks for much of the game. It was effective - Knight shot just 5-14 from the field. More importantly, Taylor's speed and stamina on defense allowed a fresher Brad Tinsley to run the team's offense efficiently.
Even with his impact defense, Taylor is still this team's most frustrating player since Alex Gordon. He seemingly leads the planet in missed layups and still seems trigger-shy when it comes to dunking in traffic in Vanderbilt's half-court set. More worrisome are his five turnovers and the idea that his performance off the dribble Tuesday might convince him to stay out of the lane - a place where he's the most effective. We've been watching the Swedish Eagle for almost three years now, and while we know what he's capable of, almost no one can predict what he's going to do.
3. Festus Ezeli: Beast. Is this the type of post play that the 'Dores will be able to count on in the postseason? Ezeli stepped up in a hostile environment and showed that he can put up a dominant performance on the road. Against a solid opposing frontcourt, the Nigerian exploded for 22 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks.
Sports Illustrated's recent article documented the big man's problems with stage fright and how it affected his first three years on the team. His free throw splits at home and on the road helped confirm that he's still hasn't quite adjusted to the pressure. However, his performance last night in the face of a screaming Rupp Arena crowd on Senior Night was inspiring. He calmly sunk all four of his second half free throw attempts.
However, he might not be out of the woods just yet. Ezeli got better as the game went on before stumbling in the game's final minute. While hauling down Brad Tinsley's lob would have taken a supreme effort from anyone, his inability to go strong straight at the rim cost Vanderbilt a pair of possessions in the final two minutes. It's tough to fault the big man - Vandy wouldn't even have been in this game without his amazing play - but it is telling that this team is confident to put one of the biggest games of the year in his hands over the final two minutes of play. If Ezeli can channel his inner beast down the stretch in the NCAA Tournament, he can lead this team deep into the bracket.