Count me amongst those who hoped Festus Ezeli wouldn't play last night against Louisiana State. The big Nigerian had been held out of practices all week as recurring knee issues flared up again after the Florida game. This time, his left was tweaked, possibly as a result of overcompensating for his 80 percent healthy right knee. Either way, it seemed like rest was the only cure - and we needed Ezeli cured with Anthony Davis and Kentucky coming to town.
Instead, Ezeli played on in a must-win game for the Commodores. And Vanderbilt needed him to win.
LSU had no answer for the big man inside, turning to fouls to keep Ezeli from scoring at will around the basket. Festus clearly wasn't 100 percent, but he was still able to sling his weight around well enough to create room for passes and get to the rim. Instead of thunderous dunks, he responded with a softer touch thanks to his tender knees. His elevation and explosiveness weren't quite right, but it was enough to burn the Tigers for 21 points.
More importantly, he forced LSU to clamp down on him inside, opening up shots for John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. Ezeli's most unheralded strength is his ability to keep help defenders away from driving Commodores on their way to the basket. Ezeli's power helps isolate opponents' big men near the rim, allowing for easy layups when ballhandlers on the perimeter can get past their defenders. This talent has helped add diversity to the scoring games of Jenkins and Brad Tinsley from the backcourt.
However, his effectiveness against a much stronger Kentucky team is very much in question. Ezeli's strength and hands kept LSU's centers in foul trouble and altered Vandy's gameplan to one that focused on getting the ball to the paint. They won't have that same advantage on Saturday, when Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be the opposing bigs around the rim. A healthy Ezeli would be able to give Davis, already UK's single-season record holder for blocks, all he could handle. If Vanderbilt gets the guy who couldn't finish emphatically at the basket on Wednesday, a high-level defender like Davis will alter his share of shots in the paint.
Ezeli was an undeniable asset against LSU. He'll have to be even better against Kentucky, but his performance will hinge on his gimpy knees in the Commodores' biggest game of the season so far. The stronger Ezeli should have multiple chances to create space and get the ball in the paint, but Vanderbilt will need their NBA-ready big man to flush his dunks and elevate over Davis's blanketing defense to give the 'Dores efficient points.
The guy we saw last night looked like he was too physically limited to do that. Will his knees be stronger when the Wildcats come to town? Vanderbilt fans better hope so.
Two more things we learned from LSU/Vanderbilt are after the jump...
Memorial Madness...was not in effect. Based on reports (and from what we could see on our pixelated, 16-bit feed from ESPN3), Memorial Gym wasn't just quiet last night, but the student section was a virtual ghost town compared to other conference games. There was no energy flowing through what should be the SEC's toughest place to play. When the 'Dores came out listless midway through the first half, there was no fan-driven current to prop them back up.
There are a few theories about this. The first is that students stayed away thanks to the priority seating regulations the university dropped on them for the Kentucky game. In order for students to get the best seats for the UK contest, they'll have to attend tonight's Vandy-Tennessee women's basketball game. While the 'Dores-Lady Vols game is a marquee showdown, many students had only planned on attending one midweek game in the midst of mid-term exams. As a result, students may have abandoned the LSU game in order to ensure great seats for Saturday's game while still giving them enough time to study.
Other ideas about the relative emptiness range from Vandy's recent two-game losing streak to the level of competition they faced last night. Both would imply that we've got a pretty fickle and ill-informed fan base. LSU brought a top 100 team with a big-time legacy to Memorial Gym. After two losses on the road, they needed the momentum of a home crowd behind them more than ever.
I'm buying into the first theory instead. It's a bit disappointing that our students need to be bribed to watch a rivalry game between two top-25 women's programs, but I can understand the university wanting to fill what has been a historically empty student section for WBB games. However, the timing of this stunt may have had a more adverse effect on the men's team than anyone anticipated.
100 percent of James Siakam's points from the field COME FROM DUNKS. As soon as Siakam's final-minute dunk comes online, we'll be giffing it and starting every gamethread with it. Siakam played just one minute in last night's game, but it was enough to take an assist from Kyle Fuller and throw it down with authority from the baseline. He may not play much, but he's fun as hell to watch when he's out there.