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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sportaholic College Basketball: What's wrong with the Vanderbilt Commodores?

This was a season that started off with the dreaded high expectations moniker for the Vanderbilt Commodores men’s basketball team. This was a team that that was coming off a 23-11 season that ended in disappointment after a 2nd round tournament loss to underdog Richmond. Despite the tasting that bitter pill of defeat early in the tourney the Commodores returned its core players including likely NBA draftees John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli who all opted to remain in college for another shot at the NCAA tournament. They seemed poised for a deep run and started the season ranked number 7 in the nation on the strength of their experience and the best players coming back for one more year with Kevin Stallings.

However, things have not worked out as planned so far this year and its not even close. The Commodores have stumbled out the blocks to a 7-4 record. Now it’s hard to fault them on their two losses to highly ranked teams like Xavier and Louisville but their other two losses against the likes of Cleveland State and Indiana are a different story. The team seems lacking in the finishing department as they have led in the last minutes of all their losses. It’s hard to fathom why this team isn’t better in crunch time with a player in Jeff Taylor that is as versatile as any in the country and a dead eye shooter in John Jenkins who led the SEC in scoring last year. They are sorely missing the inside presence of Ezeli who has been sidelined the entire year with a sprained knee. He gives the ‘Dores a much needed presence in the post that helps spread the floor for their shooters like Jenkins, Taylor, and Brad Tinsley and also tremendous for them on the defensive side of the ball. I have been waiting since last year for Taylor to emerge as the guy with his skills and defensive prowess but he just doesn’t seem to want to take on that role even as a senior. Even Jenkins seems to shy away from taking the last shot and that’s really shocking when you see him light up teams for 20 and 30 points. He has such a beautiful stroke and shoots with ease so it really bothers me that he hasn't stepped up and become the guy.  No one the team wants to be the guy and when you have a team full of followers and not leaders you know what to expect as result.

Although the loss of Ezeli is a big one, the Commodores still be better than what we’ve witnessed so far from the. Ezeli can’t make them perform better in late game situations and neither can he in most cases be the guy who takes the last shot. A lot of Vanderbilt fans are beginning to point the finger of blame to Head Coach Kevin Stallings. Stallings is in his 13th year at the helm of the Vanderbilt program. His hard edge task master mentality toward his players rubs some the wrong way. But this is a coach that has won two SEC coach of the year awards (2007 and 2010) and has taken Vanderbilt to two Sweet Sixteen’s. Most critics of Stallings say he has a hard time of maximizing his team’s abilities as evident by recent rash of early tournament exits and some of his big time recruits not panning out. The Commodores under Stallings has seemingly always been a team with high expectations that disappoint every year and this season would be the greatest of them all with what most would call his best ever roster. Stallings is very blunt guy and tells it like it is. This is what he to say about John Jenkins after their loss to Indiana State: "They did a good job of getting up on John," Stallings said. "He was too quick to try and pinch off shots. There was no rhythm to our offense, but we had no rhythm the whole week of practice."

Whoever is to blame the Commodores need to crank it up as the season if they hope to meet those lofty goals that were made when the season started. Someone other than Coach Stallings has to become the voice of authority for this team. Rather it be Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins, Brad Tinsley or whoever. Vanderbilt teams since forever have been labeled as soft and nothing has changed from what we have seen so far. The team really misses Ezeli who is their muscle but can’t just rely on him to do everything in the post. They have to develop some intestinal fortitude when a guy like Xavier guard Tu Holloway goes off for 10 points in overtime. This team is just too talented to have the type of mental lapses it has during the most important times of the game. The beauty of this whole thing is that have plenty of more games to figure it out. They will get another crack at a top 25 opponent in Marquette. The Golden Eagles just suffered their first loss as LSU pulled the upset 67-59, so naturally they will be looking for blood after losing to one SEC team.

For the fans of the Commodores this was suppose to be the season of all seasons for them as they looked finally ready to get over the hump and make a possible Final Four run but if they don’t develop a late game go to guy and continue to play as soft as they have, they will limp into the tournament with a lower seed and set up another possible 1st round exit. Maybe it was the high expectations that have led to them faltering. Ezeli will come back soon so we will get a better gauge of what team is to become. Here is hoping that they get their act together once he does. The problem with Vanderbilt these days are the Commodores themselves. They have to look into the mirror and realize that they are just a better team than the one we’ve seen one quarter into the season.

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