Vanderbilt needs a big win with or without Festus Ezeli

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 28th, 2011

This is a big week for the SEC, and an even bigger week for Vanderbilt. The  Commodores play two top 25 home games this week, against #11 Xavier on Monday night and at #6 Louisville on Friday night. I know the Commodores are without starting center Festus Ezeli. Undoubtedly, this will be a different team once Ezeli returns, but a loss in late November or early December still counts as a loss. Even without Ezeli.

Ezeli isn't walking out on the court tonight for Vanderbilt (Associated Press)

Why do I think this week is a Make or Break week for Vandy? Besides the fact that they’re playing two Top 25 ranked teams, the implications could be further reaching than more early season losses.

  1. Perception is Reality – Vanderbilt found themselves to be an easy target for anyone looking for a preseason Top 10 team that was overrated and for good reason. Their recent early round exits out of the NCAA Tournament as well as their inability to maintain leads in close games last year leads to a questionable elite team. Already this season, the Commodores have lost to Cleveland State. Not that losing to Xavier or Louisville would appear to be bad losses considering the circumstances (Ezeli’s absence, early in the season, etc), but it would add to the notion that Vanderbilt is soft in crunch time. Normally I would say who cares what anybody else thinks, but in this case, Vanderbilt needs to get the huge weight off their back prior to tournament time. Brad Tinsley‘s big time shot with 4.5 seconds remaining to win the Oregon State game proves they can perform in the clutch, but they need to show that they can they do it against another top 25 team. That will be a big question in March. It doesn’t matter what we think, but it does matter what the Vanderbilt players think and the only way for they are going to feel confident going into the tournament is to have been in that situation many times and know they can succeed. And to do it without Ezeli would mean even more.
  2. Impact on NCAA Seeding – Again, Vandy’s NCAA Tournament seeding may not be terribly affected by a loss to a Top 15 team early in the season without one of their best players, but if they lose both, and it certainly won’t help either. For a team that lost in the first round of the tournament in three of the last four years, they cannot afford to drop in seeding. Sure, they will have plenty of other chances for big wins, but none will be as vulnerable as Louisville is right now with a number of early season injuries and many won’t be in the friendly confines of Memorial Gym like Monday’s match-up with Xavier. Of the remaining top 25 teams on Vanderbilt’s schedule right now, only Kentucky and Florida will have to play in Nashville. Vanderbilt will play games at Marquette, at Alabama, at Florida, and at Kentucky. The Commodores need these wins because they might not get two better chances to knock off top-tier teams the rest of the season.
  3. A Chance to Restore a Struggling Defense – Some might say the Commodores are struggling. Others might go one step further and say they suck. Head coach Kevin Stallings would fall into the latter group. “We have to play better defensively,” Stallings 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.” Vanderbilt has an adjusted defensive efficiency that ranks 72nd in the nation. This week, Vanderbilt isn’t playing teams that are highly efficient offensively, but are still solid as Xavier is 33rd in the nation in offensive efficiency and Louisville is 54th. This could be as good a chance as any for the Commodores’ defense to step up. Neither the Musketeers nor the Cardinals are as efficient scoring as Marquette, Florida, or Kentucky, all of whom are teams the Commodores will face later in the season.

We all know this Vanderbilt team is not at full strength, but it doesn’t mean that Vanderbilt can’t win one or both of these games in spite of the odds. These are important wins for the Commodores with or without Festus Ezeli in the lineup.

Brian Joyce (284 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.


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