There's something about seeing a six foot guard with a fauxhawk lighting your team up that introduces a certain tinge of doubt into your season's outlook. Saturday's home beatdown at the hands of Rotnei Clarke and Arkansas was a high-level depantsing; an alarming wakeup to the current state of this team. The Commodores, beset by nagging injuries, didn't have the depth to recover from a couple of bad defensive days from Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli.
The result was a humbling loss and a likely tumble from the Top 25 - an honor this team just can't seem to hold on to this season. After beating a very game Mississippi State team on the road, Vanderbilt came home and threw up a stinker in a game that they should have won. Is this team destined for a spot in "Also Receiving Votes" limbo and an 8/9 seed in the tournament? Or will they be able to play up to their potential and secure the high tournament seeding that their talent level suggests they're worthy of (anything but a four seed, please)?
We may get some answers this week in Gainesville, but it's more likely that we won't know this team's true identity until March rolls around. On to the analysis:
1. Jeffery Taylor's defense may be this team's true catalyst. Taylor's numbers against Arkansas were decent enough (13 points, five rebounds, four assists), but anyone watching the game knew that something was wrong with the Swedish Eagle. Taylor's usually stout defense was a step behind all night, failing to fight through screens and even getting beat into the lane. His main assignment, Rotnei Clarke, ended up exploding for 36 points despite the presence of an All-SEC defender on his heels.
There's no word on whether Taylor was sick or battling a tweaked ankle (the scourge of the Vanderbilt season so far), but he didn't look quite right out there. Without his defense, the Commodores had no chance to make a run to get back into the game; Arkansas simply kept scoring. As a result, Vanderbilt fans got to see Taylor's true value on the other end of the court Saturday. Hopefully it was just a one-off bad game, because he'll be needed at full strength against Florida.
2. Can Festus Ezeli be exploited by quicker, smaller opponents? "Skynet" has been a revelation for the Commodores this year on offense, but his calling card had always been his defensive play. Ezeli's athleticism and strength make him a beast in the block that few teams have been able to figure out. Unfortunately, the Festus enigma may have been solved Saturday night.
Michael Sanchez is not a very good NCAA-level basketball player, but he abused Ezeli by forcing him to defend outside the paint. Sanchez often got the ball a few steps inside the arc, then dribbled past a ball-hawking Festus for either a lay-up or a short jumper. Without much help in the lane, Ezeli didn't have an answer, often cheating behind Sanchez to flail for a big swat. It didn't pay off, and a little-used reserve made the big Nigerian look foolish. Other coaches will no doubt try to emulate this to spark their offense in the paint for future SEC games.
3. Our deepest position has turned into a MASH unit. In November, we were lauding the depth at the forward position. Today, we're waiting with baited breath for the full strength returns of Andre Walker, Steve Tchiengang, and now Lance Goulbourne. Walker has missed the majority of the season with mononucleosis and an ankle injury, while Tchiengang had been playing with a bum leg over the past month. On Saturday, Goulbourne joined the injured list by tweaking his ankle in the first half and was clearly affected by the ailment for the rest of the game.
Each player brings his own strengths to the team; Walker is a facilitator and steady veteran hand, Goulbourne is the team's best rebounder, and Tchiengang leads the team in angry looks and referees laughed at. If none of them are at full strength, the 'Dores will have to rely on freshman Rod Odom for big minutes. While Odom is talented, he's still facing a pretty steep learning curve in the SEC, and he doesn't have the mass to be effective at power forward just yet.
Brad Tinsley and Festus Ezeli are also nursing nagging leg injuries, making it less than 50 percent of the team's rotation currently playing at full strength. Injuries are bound to happen, and this team has been pretty blessed that no major injuries have affected the team yet. However, the training staff had better be working overtime preparing ice baths and ankle wraps, because this team faces a much tougher road to the SEC title with their frontline operating at 60 percent or less.