Kevin Stallings won’t use Festus Ezeli as an excuse for weak defense

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Postgame press conferences are usually filled with generalities and cliches.

Coaches and players — especially those of the losing team — see them as a necessary evil. The quotes that are given are rarely enlightening, as the interviewees all too often talk to the questioners as if explaining basketball to a ten year old. Answering questions from a room full of reporters is not what the teams want to be doing immediately after winning or losing a big game.

Every once in a while you’ll run into a coach who, for whatever reason, decides to provide the media with a moment of clarity regarding his team. Kevin Stallings did just that after Vanderbilt’s 86-79 win over NC State on Saturday night.

And he wasn’t happy.

“We have to play better defensively,” he said. “We’re a pretty good offensive team, but we suck on defense. Until we get better defensively, it doesn’t matter who we put out there. We’ve got to get better defensively. Period.”

He’s right. The Commodores are not a very good defensive team. But they also are not a complete basketball team right now, and they won’t be complete until Festus Ezeli is back in the lineup. Ezeli was supposed to miss the first six games of the season after the NCAA ruled that he had received improper benefits, but that suspension was nullified when he sprained his knee in late October. the injury is bad enough that it could keep him out of the lineup until the calender changes.

Its no wonder that Vanderbilt isn’t complete. You take a first round draft pick off of any team and there is going to be a negative impact.

“Festus is a load for anybody,” Jeff Taylor said after the game. “He’s 6’11”, 270 lb, so obviously its a big hole that we all collectively need to fill.”

Stallings strongly emphasized that Vandy cannot sit back and complain about the missing piece, saying “we’re foolish if we’re sitting around and waiting for Festus to all of a sudden show up and cure our problems. We have problems that have nothing to do with Festus and nothing to do with the fact he’s not here.”

Frankly, he’s right.

Vanderbilt got torched defensively. CJ Leslie scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half while Richard Howell finished with 16 points and nine boards inside. Vandy allowed the Wolfpack to shot 50% from the floor for the game (they shot a crisp 60% in the first half) and gave up 45 first half points to a team expected to finish near the bottom of the ACC. That’s not good.

“We did what we do a lot,” Stallings said. “Letting players get their head up and get in their comfort zone. As soon as someone becomes confident, they become a lot harder to guard.”

That’s where Festus Ezeli makes a difference for this team. He’s an eraser around the rim. He wouldn’t have been matched up with Leslie man-to-man, but he would have been hanging around the rim to challenge some of those shots that Leslie got. He would have provided a much tougher matchup for Howell, who carried NC State for stretches during the second half.

By no means is this meant to be a knock of Steve Tchiengang, Ezeli’s replacement at the center spot. He actually played pretty well in his 34 minutes. He finished with 11 rebounds, three on the offensive end of the floor, and chipped in six points. Lance Goulbourne, who starts at the four for Vandy, had his best offensive game of the season, scoring 15 points and adding five rebounds.

But neither of them provide that presence in the paint that Ezeli does. John Jenkins had Vanderbilt’s only block. He’s a 6’4″ shooting guard.

“He cleans up a lot of stuff back there, he’s a big presence,” Goulbourne said. “Offensively, we can throw it in to him anytime and he can score the ball.”

Ezeli will make a big difference for this team when he finally does get healthy and back onto the court, but its unclear when that is going to be. Vanderbilt still has plenty of games to play in the meantime, and while pontificating about how good this team will end up being defensively with Ezeli in the lineup is worthwhile for us, thinking about a player that won’t be on the court will only be a distraction for the Commodores.

“Festus ain’t here,” Stallings said. “He ain’t gonna be here Monday. He’s not going to be playing Friday or the following Monday. He’s not going to be playing, so if our guys are — and I’m not suggesting that they are because I don’t think they are and I hope they’re not — if they’re sitting around and waiting for him to come back, then we got more problems than just our defense.”

“Festus will help that a little bit when and if he gets back, but we better get help before that or we’re going to have a bunch of numbers that go in that right hand column that we’re not very excited about.”

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