Will Festus Ezeli fix what’s wrong with Vandy?

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When it comes to college athletics, calling a team “controversial” generally means that they are playing by the Jim Calhoun rules of recruiting.

Not so with Vanderbilt.

The Commodores, who are probably as clean as a program can be playing at the high-major level, are the most controversial team in the country not because of the way that they landed their three first-round picks, but because of the product that Kevin Stallings puts on the court.

I made the argument a week ago that Vanderbilt cannot be judged as a team until they get Festus Ezeli back, and I still believe it. Festus Ezeli is a first round pick and one of the best big man in the SEC, if not the country. He’s a force on both ends of the floor. There is no way that inserting that presence into your lineup won’t have an effect.

But the question that can be asked is if Ezeli’s presence can fix the flaws of this Vanderbilt team.

Are Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins going to be able to defend a talented back court? For the majority of the Commodore’s 82-70 loss to Xavier on Monday night, they did a solid job. While the Musketeer back court of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons finished 13-38 from the floor against Vandy, they made all the big shots and big plays down the stretch. Lyons went coast-to-coast for a pretty, spinning layup to tie the game and force the extra period while Holloway hit two huge threes in overtime that put Xavier up eight points.

The other problem is that a number of the misses from Xavier were the result of over-dribbling and bad shots being forced by those two. Some of that credit has to go to the defense, but a lot of it is also the result of poor decision-making for the first 35 minutes of the game.

A bigger issue, however, is Vanderbilt’s offensive execution in the clutch. The Commodores pushed their lead to as much as ten early in the second half, but a flurry of bad turnovers allowed Xavier to make a run and take the lead. Much of that came against Vanderbilt’s bench, and once the starters came back in the game, they were able to regain control of the game on a John Jenkins three with 4:03 left that pushed the lead back up to 66-62.

For the next 6:39, however, Vanderbilt went scoreless. Their offense, which is supposed to be their strength, lost all of its flow. When Vanderbilt needed a bucket, the ball ended up in the hands of Tinsley. On Vanderbilt’s last possession of regulation, Jenkins wasn’t even looked at as Tinsley forced a tough 15 footer that squirted out of his hands. After Vandy had cut the lead to four in regulation, the next two possessions ended with Tinsley threes.

Vanderbilt is not complete. They will get better when Ezeli returns.

But if tonight proved anything, its that the boost they get from their big man may not address the weaknesses that are costing Vanderbilt games early in the season.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.