EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – We cannot yet fully judge this Vanderbilt for their performances on the court.
Until their team is complete and Festus Ezeli makes a healthy return to the lineup, we cannot know how good this team is going to be. Ezeli is a big-time rebounder and a very talented defender around the rim. His presence changes the way that Vanderbilt can defend. The Commodores will be able to gamble more on the wing and pressure more on the perimeter knowing that if they get beat, Ezeli is standing underneath the rim as a safety net.
Is there a possibility could be minimal? Of course.
But he could also be the difference maker. We won’t know until we see him out there.
“If any of us get beat, he’s a big guy in there,” Vanderbilt senior Jeff Taylor said after the game. “He can block shots and even just change shots. [Losing him] is tough for us.”
What we can take out of this game — the tournament, for that matter — is that the Commodores look more comfortable in late-game scenarios. Against both NC State and Oregon State, Vandy blew leads in the second half before hanging on to win. In their 64-62 win over the Beavers, Vandy had a nine-point second half lead erased.
The is relevant because of the reputation that this group has garnered the past few years: that this is a team that can’t win big games, can’t win close games and can’t protect a lead. In 2010-2011, they were 1-5 in games decided by three points or less, lost another game by four points and dropped an overtime decision to South Carolina when they led by eight points late in the game. They’ve also been knocked out of the first round of the tournament on three consecutive trips by a mid-major program seeded either 12th or 13th.
Will this year be different?
“We’ve drawn from those experiences we had in previous years,” Taylor said. “We gave up a lot of big leads last year and I think we learned a lot from that. We’re an older group of guys so we have experienced this so we know what to expect and how to react in certain situations.”
That’s a very easy thing for Taylor to say, but its a much harder task to complete.
Winning is a mindset. Being a clutch shooter is a skill. Understanding how to operate in pressure moments during crunch time is a valuable trait for a basketball players. Kevin Stallings knows that. That’s why he has his team practice it daily.
“A little bit like a football team, we practice two minutes drills every day,” Stallings said. “We’re supposed to know what’s going on at the end of the game because we practice it more than anybody.”
The last few years, John Jenkins has been the guy that gets isolated, the Vanderbilt closer. Jenkins is a sharpshooter with ice-water in his veins, and its usually close to a given that he ends up being the guy that takes, and hopefully makes, the big shot. Against Oregon State, however, Jenkins was the focal point of the Beaver defense. Jared Cunningham, a terrific defender, received the majority of the minutes chasing him around screens, but Roberto Nelson, Ahmad Starks and Charle Barton are all defenders that Craig Robinson feels comfortable “putting on anybody for a period of time”.
With the defense swarming Jenkins, the sharpshooter didn’t attempt a shot in the last 6:55 of the game.
“John is such a great offensive weapon,” senior guard Brad Tinsley said, “that a lot of times, teams just flood to him.”
But Jenkins’ teammates stepped up. Steve Tchiengang, a backup center, drilled a huge three with 4:26 left in the game before Tinsley came off of a ball-screen and knocked down a 15 footer with 4.5 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner.
“That’s why I didn’t try to force anything,” Jenkins said. :Those guys went out there and hit shots, I didn’t need to force anything or try to get anything up.”
Vanderbilt leaves the Northern New Jersey swamp with the Legends Classic title, but more importantly, they head out with the confidence that they can win a close game and do so without being carried by their best offensive weapon.
And that, in the long run, is more important than any trophy the Gazelle Group gives them.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.