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.