Vanderbilt hosted the SEC's worst team Wednesday night and played them to a 22-22 standstill in the first half. Jeffery Taylor, one week after making his case to be a lottery pick with a 23-point first half against Ole Miss, turned in a 1-8 stinker from the field. Playing in front of an unusually sparse Ash Wednesday home crowd, the Commodores made just 15 baskets and were held to their lowest point total since an embarrassing loss to Indiana State in December.
However, things weren't all bad last night. Consider this:
- It was a win.
- It was likely a win that clinched a NCAA Tournament berth.
- It marked the return of dominant Festus.
- It gave the team extra inspiration heading into a massive showdown in Kentucky this weekend.
Ezeli's performance swung last night's game for the Commodores, but it also happened against a center-less team that isn't known for its post play. The big Nigerian was a defensive presence all over the half court, blocking shots from the rim all the way out to the three-point line. He also showed off some quick feet in switch situations, keeping faster guards like Bruce Ellington in front of him late in the game.
For Vanderbilt to beat Kentucky, however, they'll need the Ezeli who put so much pressure inside on South Carolina that they had no chance but to foul him. That's going to be a tough task with national player of the year candidate Anthony Davis locking him down at center. Davis proved two weeks ago that he can effectively sap Ezeli's efficiency in the paint. Hopefully the Commodores can use a less Festus-centric offense to carry the team, leaving Ezeli to fill in a more complementary role. That's what helped spur the team's comeback against those 'Cats three games ago.
As for the rest of the team? Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang played solid games whose impact won't necessarily show up in the box score. Tchiengang proved that his biggest asset is as a lithe body who can set screens and box out defenders. Goulbourne cemented his status as a legit defender who can do a little of everything on the offensive end (except handle the ball). Together, with Ezeli, these two have helped make up one of the most efficient Commodore frontcourts of the Stallings era.
Things got a bit dicier behind those players on Wednesday. Taylor and Brad Tinsley couldn't hit water from a boat, combining to go 3-14 from the field. This could be something to keep an eye on. Tinsley's slumps come and go. Sometimes they last weeks. Occasionally they stretch over entire seasons (2009-2010). The team has proven that they can be successful with him in a funk, though it certainly doesn't help matters.
Taylor is a different story. He's got the talent and work ethic to absolutely take over games when he turns on terror mode. 2012 has been his most consistent year yet. However, he's still working to shake the reputation of a guy whose mental state completely alters his game. Taylor's funks have sunk this team in the past. He's now become option 1A behind John Jenkins and the team will need every ounce of him to be fired up as though he was playing Ole Miss again. So here's the big question: was Wednesday night just a bad night (everyone has those) - or was it the front end of a slump?
That brings us to Jenkins, the steady engine who has driven this team to a 10-3 record in games where he scores 20 points or more. Last year, he exploded with 32 points to lead Vanderbilt to a big home win over the Wildcats. This year, he posted his least efficient game of the season against UK, scoring only 15 points on 14 shots. Since then he's sprung for 75 points on 26 attempts, a mindblowing 2.88 points per shot.
Kentucky's defense will be able to limit his ability to score at the free throw line - Doron Lamb helped hold him to just three free throws on the night in their first meeting. However, Jenkins's shooting can be the ultimate game changer. Saturday's matchup gives him the chance to have a huge moment in a spotlight game. Can he make an All-American case with a monster performance and a Commodore win? Jenkins hasn't proven that he can come through in the clutch just yet, but he's been light on chances. After a solid weekday performance, he could be primed for an explosion at Rupp Arena.
If Jenkins goes off, Taylor gets his head right, and Ezeli plays like he did Wednesday, an upset could be in order. If not, it could be a long afternoon for the Commodores.