A couple of months ago, if a good mid-major team had come to Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym and slapped some physical man-to-man defense on the Commodores the way Middle Tennessee did last Saturday, they might have folded.
That was certainly the case in Vanderbilt’s surprising homecourt losses to Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State, but one key ingredient was absent in those games - Festus Ezeli
. The fifth-year senior’s imposing (6-foot-11, 255 pounds) presence was missed in the first few weeks of the season as he recovered from a knee injury, but in recent games he’s been rounding into form. Not surprisingly, so have the Commodores (16-5, 5-1 SEC), who have won 10 of their last 11.
Ezeli was the hero against Middle Tennessee in a game that had the look and feel of a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup. The Blue Raiders came into the game with a 19-2 record and a bona fide big man of their own in LaRon Dendy
, a 6-10 transfer from Iowa State, but Vanderbilt’s game plan was to make sure Ezeli got plenty of touches in the post. He responded with the best game of his injury-plagued season—21 points, four rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.
"We talked about getting the ball inside for two days of practice,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings
said. “We thought we had an advantage there, and we thought they would do exactly what they did and press up on us, and Festus delivered.
“No disrespect to anyone else, but he was the best player on the floor today."
"I wish we'd have [played] when [Ezeli] was hurt,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis
said. "When he plays like that, it just gives them such a weapon. Now you have to double him, because they've got so many offensive players around him. They did a great job, spread the floor and got it to the right spots so he could score."
Before his knee injury, Ezeli had been playing the best offensive basketball in his career and NBA scouts were frequent visitors to the Commodores’ practices. Post injury, Ezeli had struggled to get his timing back, and Vanderbilt struggled without his presence on both ends of the floor.
"Every game I’m feeling just a little bit better,” Ezeli said, “trying to slow the game back down."
: Now there’s the player that Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, among many others, anointed a preseason All-American.
’s contributions were inexplicably absent at times during Kentucky’s non-conference schedule, but since SEC play began, he’s begun to show flashes of the player who dominated at the Maui Invitational his freshman season, when some pundits thought for a time he could have been the first pick of the 2011 NBA draft.
The most recent example came in a win last Saturday at LSU, which could well have been a trap game for the young Wildcats (21-1, 7-0), who are currently atop both major polls. This season the Tigers had dealt Big East power Marquette a convincing loss in Baton Rouge and came within a play or two of beating a good Virginia team there, so they were more than capable of giving Kentucky a hard time.
Jones didn’t let that happen, scoring a season-high 27 points, to go with nine boards, three blocked shots and two steals, in 30 productive minutes as the ‘Cats won handily, 74-50. Jones made 10 of 16 shots from the floor and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line.
If Jones can consistently deliver even half those numbers every game, the roll Kentucky is on now will carry it through a couple of trips to New Orleans—one for the SEC Tournament and the other for the Final Four.
“Terrence Jones, my point to him was, if this is who you are, then you should be this every game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari
MAYMON BEASTLY ON THE BOARDS
: For anyone who thought Tennessee’s 6-7, 265-pound junior forward Jeronne Maymon
showed all his cards this season with a 32-point, 20-rebound against Memphis in the Maui Invitational last November, well, he’s gotten into a groove again, especially on the glass.
Maymon corralled 19 rebounds against Auburn last Saturday, giving him the top two rebounding efforts in the league this season (he shares second with Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
, who grabbed 19 rebounds against Louisville). That 32-point outburst is the league’s top scoring game so far, too.
In his last five games against four SEC teams and Connecticut, Maymon has averaged 10.4 boards. That stretch doesn’t equal the three games in November during which Maymon averaged 14.3 rebounds, but it’s impressive, especially considering freshman Jarnell Stokes
is now around to help Maymon in the paint.
“He brings his hard hat on rebounds,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin
"He's just a physical presence, and he thinks every time the ball hits the rim it's his,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee
said. “Those are the kinds of big guys you want. We expect somebody else to get the rebound, when he thinks every rebound that hits the glass is his. That's how you've got to play as a big man.”
: Florida freshman Brad Beal
has been having the kind of season expected for a five-star recruit, except for perimeter shooting. In his preseason analysis of Beal’s game, Florida coach Billy Donovan
laughed as he described Beal’s deadly stroke from 3—“He can really, really shoot it,” Donovan said—but he had been inconsistent from behind the arc until the Gators’ win over Mississippi State.
Beal made 3 of 4 from 3 in that game, bumping his percentage to a respectable .349. If that stroke Donovan marveled over in the preseason has arrived in time for the stretch run, the Gators are going to have as much perimeter firepower as any team in the country.
Florida is shooting .408 from behind the arc, eighth in the nation, and the Gators lead Division I with their average of 10.6 3s per game.
HOLLOWAY HURTS OLD TEAM
: The odyssey of Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway
came full circle last Saturday when the Rebels played South Carolina. Holloway played two seasons at Ole Miss, transferred to South Carolina last year to be closer to his Irmo, S.C. home and his daughter, and then decided to head back to Oxford.
The NCAA granted Holloway immediate eligibility because he wasn’t on scholarship at South Carolina.
That put Holloway in an odd situation on Saturday. Had he stayed in Columbia, the game would have been against his former teammates. But wait a minute—because he returned to Ole Miss, the game was still against his former teammates.
You don’t see that situation every day.
There’s no question Holloway—third in the SEC in rebounding at 9.4 per game—would have helped South Carolina this season. The Gamecocks are 12th in the league in rebounding and eighth in rebound margin.
Holloway contributed 14 points, 11 boards, three assists and three steals against his old team.