Category archive: Vanderbilt Commodores
"They know they lost a lot but they can't have any slippage,'' Jenkins said. "I was highly impressed with what the bodies look like. There was good talking, showing leadership.''
"That's important to me because I'm the one that put my arm around them when they came up,'' Jenkins said. "They understand what has to be done. I was highly impressed by the workout.''
Jenkins said he expects Odom and Fuller to do the same with incoming freshmen A.J. Astroth, Kevin Bright and Sheldon Jeter.
But the Dores will almost certainly take a step back without the shooting of Jenkins and Taylor, Taylor's defense, and the inside scoring of Ezeli.
• Lamb said Vanderbilt and Florida were the two SEC teams that pushed the Wildcats the most during his two years in Lexington.
"They got us in that game,'' Lamb said of the SEC title game. "But we won the national championship. Those were the two toughest teams for us. We had a lot of hard games, but those were the main games we got up for.''
• Lamb didn't bite on whether Kentucky is now missing a shooter like himself, which is what Anthony Davis said about next season's Wildcats. Still, Lamb expects UK to be in the thick of the title chase again.
• Jenkins and Lamb guarded each other quite a bit in the Celtics workout. Jenkins' strength is catch-and-shoot. Lamb is much more of a combo guard. Jenkins had trouble getting past Lamb, but that may not mean as much since a team would be drafting Jenkins as a pure shooting guard while Lamb could play both guard positions. Both players are likely to be drafted somewhere in the 20s.
• Jenkins is heading back to Denver (20th pick) for a second workout and may visit Cleveland (24th pick) a second time. Boston picks at 21 and 22.
• As for Walker, he said the Gators should be the favorite in the SEC next season over Kentucky and Missouri.
"They've still got Kenny Boynton, Patric Young, Erik Murphy, and I expect big things out of Mike Rosario,'' Walker said. "Mike got down a bit with me and Kenny being there and Brad [Beal] coming in. But he practiced hard and competed with us and will be a great scorer. They'll be right there to make a run at the Final Four.''
• Walker said losing in the Elite Eight and missing the Final Four two years in a row was hard to digest.
"We gave up late leads two years in a row,'' said Walker of the Gators losing in consecutive regional final games to Butler (2011) and Louisville (2012). "It sucks. We could have done more. I always wanted to see what it would feel like. We would have definitely given Kentucky a run since we got closer and closer.''
Kentucky beat Florida three times last season, twice during the regular season and once in the SEC tournament.
"They blew us out the first time, but it was closer at home and then right there in the SEC tournament,'' Walker said. "We had a great run.''
• Walker is unlikely to get drafted, but still competes extremely hard, especially on the defensive end.
• I'll be surprised if Boston keeps both 21 and 22, but the Celtics need to make sure there is a palatable trade. This is a huge summer for Boston's two 2011 draft picks, Purdue's E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, who didn't get a chance to play much as rookies.
• Charlotte is entertaining offers for the No. 2 pick and would look to move down for multiple picks. But the Bobcats do like their options at No. 2 if they keep the pick, according to a source.
• Houston is unlikely to keep both 14 and 16, according to a source, but the Rockets don't fret at the prospect of retaining both.
• Utah would like to get into the first round if possible, according to a source.
• At 17th, Dallas could check out of the first round for the right price, said a source.
• The most interesting debate in the top five is where Thomas Robinson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will land. The certainties, at least at this juncture according to team sources, are Anthony Davis to New Orleans and Bradley Beal and/or Harrison Barnes staying in the top four. That means either Robinson or Kidd-Gilchrist could slide out of the top four to Sacramento at No. 5 or below.
I've bought in on Vanderbilt.
And I don't see anything changing that in the next six weeks.
This team has a chance to do something special under Kevin Stallings. It has endured the necessary adversity to find itself during the course of a season and is still in position to achieve its goals. The heart of the Commodores' SEC schedule remains, including two February games against national title contender Kentucky.
Vandy was missing its toughest, and most irreplaceable, player early in the season, as big man Festus Ezeli had two issues: a six-game suspension for receiving extra benefits and an injury.
The Dores were humbled in a home loss to Horizon League contender Cleveland State. Respectable overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville followed, as did less respectable losses (Indiana State).
They have been finding their form since, winning eight in a row. The most impressive of those wins was a 74-57 triumph against Marquette in Milwaukee; the Eagles were supposed to be the tougher team, but Vandy got in their grill and delivered a knockout.
The Commodores enter a three-game homestand as the second-hottest team in the SEC outside of Kentucky, with games against Mississippi State on Saturday, Tennessee on Tuesday and then on Jan. 28 against Sun Belt leader Middle Tennessee.
The Dores are tied with Kentucky at 4-0 for first in the SEC. Before the season, the Commodores expected to be the Wildcats' strongest competition in the league race.
"We've finally gotten consistent practice time," Stallings said. "If you can't practice, you can't get better. Since Christmas, we've had the core group of guys practicing."
Ezeli was out. Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang were limited while recovering from concussions. John Jenkins had a sprained ankle. Those may sound like excuses, but a team that had been fragile in the past couldn't afford that many disruptions.
Ezeli has played in eight of the 18 games. The Commodores lost only one -- Indiana State.
"He's huge for us defensively," said Stallings. "If you look at how we are now versus early in the season, it's drastically different. We've gotten better on the defensive end and a lot better on the boards. We're nowhere near where we can get to offensively. Defensively and rebounding has taken a big turn for us."
Ezeli and Tchiengang have the ability to play physical, which helped the Dores dominate the inside against Alabama in a win on the road Thursday.
Jeffery Taylor can be a lockdown wing defender. He can also make timely shots. Jenkins has always been the team's best shooter. Brad Tinsley has had his moments but is streaky. The overall bench production needs to improve. But there is enough in play, and there's certainly enough experience, for this team to establish itself as the second-best team in the SEC.
Credit Stallings for placing the game against Middle Tennessee in the middle of the SEC season. The Blue Raiders get their own version of a BracketBusters game. A win for Middle Tennessee will help it in a possible at-large situation; a win over Vanderbilt earns it more power-rating points.
"We've been historically terrible after our off-week the last couple of years, so I wanted to make sure we put a game in there during the off-week," Stallings said. "It keeps our rhythm going. I didn't have any idea that they'd be this good. I knew they were good when they beat Belmont, but not this good on a national level."
Having Ezeli healthy has changed this team. He's not a shot-blocker, but he's a presence in the paint, one Vandy could not do without. When he's in the lineup, the Commodores' toughness quotient increases.
"People are quick to call us soft or whatever," Stallings said. "I would venture to say if you asked teams we've played, we're not soft."
There are still plenty of games to play in the SEC, but the evidence is mounting that the Dores are remedying the issues that plagued them early in the season, even if it hasn't been borne out by a national ranking.
"That's OK with us," said Stallings.
They will be ranked soon and, more importantly, seeded decently if recent results continue.
College basketball could use a Heisman-like award, one main honor instead of the five mainstream national awards.
The problem is that finding a consensus for the Wooden, Naismith, AP, Rupp and Oscar Robertson honors is no easy task.
The awards voters do tend to coalesce behind one candidate. And maybe that will be the case again.
But it seems that this season's race will be as wide open as ever. If you need more evidence, take a look at the 25 finalists for the Wooden Award, released on ESPNU and ESPN.com on Tuesday.
It appears that the only two players who are consensus candidates are Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Creighton's Doug McDermott. It's not a reach to say these two players are the favorites in mid-January, a stunning development considering how much preseason hype Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes received. The amazing part thus far is that I don't believe Sullinger nor Barnes would be a first-team All-American if the voting were conducted today.
Before we get to the list of players compiled by the Wooden folks, it's important to note that these are simply the 25 players who they felt should be honored on their midseason list. Players who do not show up are still very much eligible to win the Wooden Award at the end of the season and will be given equal consideration.
So without further ado, here are the 25 Wooden finalists (in alphabetical order):
Harrison Barnes, 6-foot-8, So., F, North Carolina Stat line: 16.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Chances: Fading. Still has a shot to be a second-team All-American. Barnes hasn't been the dominating player on the Tar Heels. To be fair, he has some of the best talent in the country (John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall) surrounding him. UNC's 33-point loss to Florida State didn't help his case, either.
Will Barton, 6-6, So., F, Memphis Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg
Chances: No shot. He could be the Conference USA Player of the Year, though. Barton has greatly improved and has been the most consistent player during the Tigers' inconsistent season.
William Buford, 6-6, Sr., G, Ohio State Stat line: 15.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Chances: No shot. Buford won't win Big Ten POY, either. He has been OSU's best perimeter threat, but he won't be a first-team All-American. Buford might not even be first-team All-Big Ten. He is an integral part of the Buckeyes' title hopes, but is not a POY contender.
Anthony Davis, 6-10, Fr., C, Kentucky Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.6 bpg
Chances: High. Davis has been the most dominant post player in the country. He blocked a last-second shot by North Carolina's John Henson in December, preventing the Tar Heels from winning a game at Rupp. He alters and changes more shots than any other player. If the Wildcats win the national title, Davis will be one of the reasons why. He would be ahead of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger on the All-America ballot if you had to choose one of them.
Marcus Denmon, 6-3, Sr., G, Missouri Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Chances: Not great. Denmon is the leading scorer for Mizzou. But it's hard to separate him from Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon and Flip Pressey in his importance to the Tigers. They all have played an equal role in Missouri's impressive start. It will be interesting to see which of these players earns first-team All-Big 12.
Draymond Green, 6-7, Sr., F, Michigan State Stat line: 15.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg
Chances: In the mix. If he continues his current pace of scoring and rebounding, Green could end up nudging out Sullinger for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Spartans did lose at Northwestern on Saturday, but Green has been a tremendous leader. He will stay in the chase for a first-team All-American spot if his team stays in the race for the Big Ten title.
John Henson, 6-11, Jr., C, North Carolina Stat line: 14.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg
Chances: No shot. Henson didn't convert the biggest shot of his season against Kentucky. Davis blocked it. And if Barnes isn't the national player of the year, Henson isn't either. The 33-point loss to Florida State will haunt all Tar Heels candidates.
John Jenkins, 6-4, Jr., G, Vanderbilt Stat line: 19.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg
Chances: No shot. Jenkins is a superb shooter and scorer and is leading the revitalized Commodores. But his role isn't more important than Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley or Festus Ezeli -- it is equally important. The 'Dores mid-nonconference slide hurts Jenkins' campaign. The success of the Kentucky freshmen also makes it almost impossible for Jenkins to get SEC Player of the Year.
Orlando Johnson, 6-5, Sr., G, UCSB Stat line: 20.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg
Chances: No shot. Johnson is having a stellar season for the Gauchos, and he may be one of the higher draft picks on this list. But the Gauchos are 8-6 and are trailing Long Beach State in the Big West. Johnson should be an All-American, but he won't make the first team.
Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2, Sr., G, Marquette Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg
Chances: No shot. DJO has had a superb season for the Golden Eagles. He has a legit shot at Big East Player of the Year. But that won't be enough to get a first-team All-American spot or the national POY. Marquette has been decent, but not great enough for DJO to stand out on that pedestal.
Kevin Jones, 6-8, Sr., F, West Virginia Stat line: 20.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg
Chances: Decent. Jones has put it all together as a senior and has put up just a monster season for the Mountaineers. Just seems like it's double-double after double-double for Jones, who will need to keep the Mountaineers in the top 3 of the Big East in order to stay in Wooden contention.
Perry Jones III, 6-11, So., C, Baylor Stat line: 14.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg
Chances: No shot at player of the year, but he is in the hunt for a first-team All-American slot. The problem for Jones' candidacy is that Quincy Acy has been a comparable inside scorer and guard Pierre Jackson has been an integral member of this team. Jones didn't help his case when he and the Bears were dominated by Kansas' Thomas Robinson in a loss on Monday night. But he can't win national POY if he isn't the Big 12 Player of the Year. And Robinson is the favorite for that honor.
Kris Joseph, 6-7, Sr., F, Syracuse Stat line: 13.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Chances: No shot. Joseph is leading the Orange, but this team is so deep, so talented and so balanced that you would have a hard time picking just him. Dion Waiters may be Syracuse's MVP. A number of other players have taken turns being the star for the Orange, too.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 6-7, Fr., F, Kentucky Stat line: 13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 49.4 FG percentage
Chances: Solid. Kidd-Gilchrist could be the SEC Player of the Year. And if he gets that honor, he'll be in contention for the national POY. Kidd-Gilchrist took a few games to get going, but once he did he was an offensive force. He has delivered on his talent and effort.
Jeremy Lamb, 6-5, So., G, Connecticut Stat line: 17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Chances: No shot. Lamb is leading the Huskies in scoring. But UConn is still finding its way in the Big East. The Huskies haven't featured Lamb as much, either. Andre Drummond may end up being the team's featured scorer by season's end. Lamb isn't the Big East Player of the Year right now, so he isn't winning the national honor.
Damian Lillard, 6-3, Jr., G, Weber State Stat line: 25.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg
Chances: He won't win national POY, but he should be in contention for second-team All-American honors. Lillard is having a stellar season for the Wildcats, who are in first place in the Big Sky. He leads the nation in scoring and his stat line is as good as any in the country. The problem is that Weber has been in obscurity so far this season. Lillard will likely not be seen by the masses until March.
Doug McDermott, 6-7, So., F, Creighton Stat line: 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 62.1 FG
Chances: High. McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the country and is a first-team All-American, at the very least. He could be this season's Jimmer Fredette, coming from outside a power six conference to win the national player of the year honor. McDermott has led the Bluejays to the top of the Missouri Valley and into the Top 25. He is the focus of every opposing defense, too.
Scott Machado, 6-1, Sr., G, Iona Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 10.3 apg
Chances: Not happening for POY, but he's in the hunt as a first-team All-American. Machado has been the most dominant point guard this season and easily leads the country in assists. Iona has played a decent schedule and is the team to beat in the MAAC. Few teams will want to face the Gaels in March, and Machado is one of the key reasons why.
Kendall Marshall, 6-4, So., G, North Carolina Stat line: 5.8 ppg, 9.6 apg
Chances: No shot. Marshall is a key for the Tar Heels. He hasn't been the best point guard in the country, but has been a solid contributor this season and does rank second behind Machado in assists. But that isn't enough to win the award or be a first-team candidate.
Mike Moser, 6-8, So., F, UNLV Stat line: 13.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg
Chances: No shot. But Moser has to be in contention for a first- or second-team All-American spot. His rebounding has been epic (especially against North Carolina). Moser and fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback have been the major reasons the Runnin' Rebels are ranked and in contention for the MWC title.
Arnett Moultrie, 6-11, Jr., C, Mississippi State Stat line: 16.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg
Chances: Not good for POY, but he's a serious candidate for first-team All-American. Outside of Moser, Moultrie has had the most impact of any transfer. He has increased MSU's chances of being a serious threat to Kentucky in the SEC. Moultrie is a double-double machine for coach Rick Stansbury and has allowed the Bulldogs to avoid relying only on Renardo Sidney.
Thomas Robinson, 6-9, Jr., F, Kansas Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg
Chances: High. Robinson is the POY favorite at this juncture. He should be a consensus first-team All-American. He has had to take on immense responsibility with the departure of the Morris twins and has responded without a hitch. He carries the weight of the incredible burden of losing his mother during last season. And yet he is as focused as ever in 2011-12. Robinson dominated in the rout over Baylor on Monday night with 27 points and 14 rebounds.
Mike Scott, 6-8, Sr., F, Virginia Stat line: 16.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg
Chances: He has no shot for national POY, but Scott is one of the favorites for ACC Player of the Year. He has been the most consistent big man in the league. Take Scott off the Cavs, and they don't come close to the top of the league standings. But Virginia did lose at Duke and also fell to TCU. Scott will have to keep the Cavs in the ACC's top three to have a chance at the league's POY.
Jared Sullinger, 6-9, So., F, Ohio State Stat line: 17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg
Chances: Still strong. Sullinger has been battling injuries (back, foot) and missed the road game at Kansas in December. That's part of the reason he is not the favorite right now. Sullinger still has plenty of time to be a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. But it would help if he had some dominating performances down the stretch.
Cody Zeller, 6-11, Fr., C, Indiana Stat line: 14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Chances: No shot. But Zeller is in the chase for Big Ten Player of the Year. At the very least, he'll be the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. It's amazing that he's on this list and his older brother Tyler (a senior at North Carolina) is not. Cody has helped transform Indiana into a national player, but the Hoosiers' recent two-game skid does take his chances for Big Ten POY down a peg.
My midseason All-America team choices: First team: Robinson, McDermott, Davis, Moultrie, Machado Second team: Kidd-Gilchrist, Sullinger, Green, K. Jones, C. Zeller
But there is no sense of urgency in the ACC, especially since the Big East for the moment is making Pitt and Syracuse stay for 27 months per the league's bylaws. The conference has plenty of time to figure out how to schedule its 14-team league.
So the attention now returns to the SEC with Monday's official announcement that Texas A&M will join the conference for the 2012-13 season. That gives the league 13 teams.
Should there be more?
Like Krzyzewski and Williams, Kentucky coach John Calipari would eventually like to see his conference get to 16.
"I don't think this stuff is done yet," Calipari said. "I've said for months that there may be four conferences with 16 or 18 teams each. But I can tell you that the SEC at 13, 14 or 16 is going to be stable. We're fine. If they're going to add, I'd like us to go and get Virginia Tech, Maryland and Missouri to go along with Texas A&M. We're not going to do anything at the expense of academics. You're also going to see basketball step up in the next five years in the SEC."
Calipari tweeted Monday that he thought the move to add the Aggies was tremendous for the league and new coach Billy Kennedy, a native of SEC country (Louisiana).
"Texas A&M is a great school academically, has a well-run athletic department and will fit well," Calipari said. "Their fan base is ridiculous, just like all of us. The SEC is different. The SEC is about schools with strong fan bases and geography. We want the markets. There is no buyout in the SEC because no one wants to leave."
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he would have been fine with the SEC staying put at 12 teams, but he's not against the expansion.
"I like the simplicity of an even number and I'm not sure it was completely necessary," Stallings said. "I don't think we're finished seeing movement and if so, if we end up at 14 or 16, if that's what the commissioner's office said we need, then I'm fine with it. Our league isn't going anywhere. We're as stable as any league in college athletics and we have visionaries who run our league. If they think we're better suited to be at 14 or 16, then I'm OK with that."
The SEC will run into issues on further expansion since it would be hard to take a team from a state where there is already a conference member. The new ACC buyout of up to $20 million poses a problem, too. But the new markets in new states is what Calipari was talking about when he rattled off Missouri, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Still, it would be extremely difficult to pry the Terrapins away from playing Duke and North Carolina every year or the Hokies from rival Virginia after Tech expended a lot of political capital with the Cavaliers to not block the school's move from the Big East to the ACC eight years ago.
The SEC's current number of 13 will be a scheduling issue for football and basketball. Football still has divisions, which is a matter unto itself as the league decides what to do with the Aggies and how to handle an unbalanced schedule.
The SEC got rid of divisions for men's basketball for this season, but the scheduling format still mirrors the football East-West split with each team playing its old side twice and the other once for the 2011-12 season.
Stallings was on an SEC committee to determine a 12-team, no-division schedule for 2012-13. The consensus was to have everyone play each other once (11 games), with seven more games coming from doubling up against league opponents to get to 18 league games. The SEC currently plays 16. The same formula is expected to be applied to a 13-team, no-division SEC next season. The Atlantic 10, which has 14 teams, has a format of playing only 16 league games with every team playing each other at least once, three teams twice.
The question for the SEC will be which rivalries are protected in a doubling-up scenario. There are a few natural ones to protect like Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Vanderbilt-Tennessee with newer ones like Kentucky-Florida and maybe more traditional ones like Tennessee-Kentucky or Florida-Georgia kept, as well. There could be a need to ensure Texas A&M plays LSU twice as well, or perhaps twice with Arkansas, a former rival from the Southwest Conference.
Whatever the case, Stallings doesn't seem all that worried.
"I think we just have to have an open mind going forward," he said. "We'll come to the best concept relative to 13."
Elite European players aren't usually in school. And in an Olympic qualifying year, the likelihood that national teams would have top players playing in this event is low.
Still, the Americans lost this event two years ago, falling to Russia in the semifinals. The U.S. beat Israel in the consolation game to take home the bronze medal with a 6-1 mark. Host Serbia won the gold.
Purdue coach Matt Painter is well-aware of the stakes in China over the next two weeks. The U.S. is coming off a disappointing fifth-place finish at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Latvia last month. The gold in the World University Games isn't with Team USA, either.
And that's exactly why Painter, who will be assisted by Butler's Brad Stevens and Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, wanted to put together a team, not an all-star tour.
"We have three weeks together and we have to have the right mindset,'' Painter said prior to leaving for China on Monday. Painter was an assistant on the U-19 gold medal team two years ago in New Zealand. "It's very important to be on the same page.''
"It was important for them to talk about their experience in New Zealand and what it meant to sacrifice minutes and how important this was,'' Painter said.
On Thursday in Huizhou, the Americans play a Chinese team called New Century in an exhibition game before pool play starts Saturday. Based on the groupings, the U.S. should win its group with the toughest challenger probably being Israel (Finland, Hungary, Mexico and South Korea are also in Group D). Host China and Brazil are in Group A; Serbia, Turkey, Canada and Australia are in Group B; and Russia and Lithuania headline Group C. The medal round is Aug. 20-22.
Here is Painter's breakdown of the 12 finalists representing the United States:
Tim Abromaitis, Sr., F, Notre Dame: "He's a very good player, and a guy that we can swing between small forward and power forward. He'll cause a lot of matchup problems for other teams.''
Marcus Denmon, Sr., G, Missouri: "When he's on, he changes the game. He can be a high-energy guy. His performances in practice have been strong. He has the potential to carry this team with his shooting and energy.''
Ashton Gibbs, Sr., G, Pitt: "He's a tough, hard-nosed player that simply gets the job done. He comes early and stays late. He's a very good shooter, can make 3s and will knock down the shots for us. He's our point like he was for us on the U-19 team.''
Draymond Green, Sr., F, Michigan State: "He's a very versatile, intelligent basketball player. He knows what's going on. He plays hard and he cares. He wants to win. He will impact the game for us.''
JaMychal Green, Sr., F, Alabama: "He's a guy that is going to have to score down low for us. He's a very talented kid. He's going to have score and rebound for this team to win.''
Scoop Jardine, Sr., G, Syracuse: "He's a very experienced player who has played in a lot of big-time games. He will help us get through the dog days of pool play to the medal round. He's a point guard who will help us and create for himself.''
John Jenkins, Jr., G, Vanderbilt: "He's a big-time shooter. He needs to score for us. He has to be aggressive. He will look for his shot and help us defensively at the 2-guard. I think we'll win the battle at the 2-guard with him.''
Orlando Johnson, Sr., G, UC Santa Barbara: "He can score the basketball. He's a good shooter, can drive the ball, post-up and pull-up with his left hand. He has to help us defensively and put points on the board. He was someone who positively surprised us at the trials. We recruited him when he left Loyola Marymount, and I'm kicking myself now that we didn't get him. He's a really good player.''
Greg Mangano, Sr., F, Yale: "I think he was the right piece for this team. He plays his role. He defends and plays post defense. He runs the court and does the little things. He could do for us what Arnett Moultrie and John Shurna did for the U-19 team two years ago -- doing key things down the stretch in the medal round. We wanted that last spot on the team to be a player with size and it came down to him and Aaric Murray [West Virginia] and Yancy Gates [Cincinnati], and we just felt that Greg would complement the other guys.''
Trevor Mbakwe, Sr., F, Minnesota: "He's tough. He's hard to handle. He's got great energy. He's got a great motor. He can really move his feet on the perimeter. He's got an impressive work ethic and a joy to coach. We were always in awe of him at Purdue. He's got brute strength and athleticism and will do a great job for us around the basket.''
Ray McCallum, So., G, Detroit: "He's so talented. His young. But he can play either guard spot and you can tell how hungry he was to make this team. He was one of the last guys we invited but he has a chance to really impact these games.''
Darius Miller, Sr., G, Kentucky: "If we throw Darius in there with Abromaitis and Green, we can play different ways. He can help us play bigger or smaller. He has really improved his shooting since we had him in New Zealand. He's going to be good against a zone, and we'll just have to find the right place to play him. He's a very good player and will help us a lot defensively.''
It was 2004. He was 14. And he was sent from his home in Nigeria to live with an uncle in California for the purpose of furthering his education, not for anything basketball-related.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Ezeli said of his first attempts at playing hoops. "Imagine someone who is 14 or 15 years old, and you're teaching them as if they're a 6-year-old. It was tough. Everyone was getting frustrated with me. I was getting frustrated with it. I tried playing in 2005. I stopped. I tried again in 2006. And when I had my first dunk in a summer league game in Las Vegas in 2006, that's when I was so excited. It was so exhilarating that I started to like it."
Five years later, Ezeli could end up being Vanderbilt's most important player as the Commodores face perhaps the highest expectations in school history. The program has never reached the Final Four, but on paper, this is its best chance in Kevin Stallings' 13 seasons in Nashville. The Dores will have to establish an inside presence, defend and rebound in the interior to compete for an SEC title and reach New Orleans. Only one person on the roster can be counted on to do that -- Ezeli.
The Commodores return the majority of their team. Vandy is loaded with seniors, with Ezeli joining Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, Brad Tinsley, Steve Tchiengang and Aaron Noll. Junior John Jenkins, currently playing for the USA at the World University Games team in China, is one of the top shooters in the country, and depth on the team runs deep with sophomores Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller and expected impact freshman guards Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson.
Vandy has lost to a double-digit seed in the first round in each of its past three NCAA tournament appearances, including last season's loss to Richmond. Nevertheless, the Dores likely will start the season in the preseason top 10. And Ezeli, who had left knee surgery to clean out some cartilage during the offseason, says he's ready to ensure the Commodores don't disappoint again in March.
"Right now there is a lot of energy here, and we're expecting a big year," he said. "I still haven't had my peace with what happened last year. We've learned from it, though."
Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis will be the marquee inside player in the SEC with his shot-blocking ability and overall ceiling that continues to rise. Mississippi State owns two legit big men in UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney. Alabama has one in JaMychal Green. Florida will be perimeter-oriented but has plenty of talent to warrant a top-three prediction.
So there's plenty of competition, and Ezeli's potential will need to be maxed out. This for a player who couldn't do much of anything in basketball just five or six years ago. A player who still spends time in the gym working on basic skills such as catching and passing.
"The hardest thing to master for me was hand-eye coordination," Ezeli said. "It's something that has been hard for me. Sometimes I just work on passing the ball, and I'm sure not a lot of people do that.
"To go from where people were telling me, 'You're so bad, you're terrible,' to being able to do what I'm doing now, to where I could be playing with the best eventually, it's an honor. It shows how hard work pays off and is finally paying off."
So how did it happen?
Ezeli clearly grew into the physique that makes him quite a specimen, even a raw one that had virtually no skill set when the Commodore coaching staff first caught him in person as he played AAU basketball in the summer of 2007. Ezeli, who is now 6-foot-11 and 255 pounds, wasn't allowed to play high school basketball in the U.S. because he had already graduated in Nigeria. He left his family seven years ago and hasn't been back to his native land, although his family comes stateside to see him and did so this summer in California.
"When we first saw him, he didn't get the ball very often," Stallings recalled. "He didn't look particularly good when he got the ball, but he had this unbelievable basketball body. You could see his speed, athleticism and how he could really run. He didn't have the skill level. We decided to recruit him, and others tried to do the same thing."
Ezeli was recruited by Florida, UConn, West Virginia, Minnesota, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara, Nevada, Creighton, South Florida and UNLV. Other teams were willing to take a gamble on a project -- even at an elite level.
"Obviously you don't take chances on 5-7 point guards, but 6-11 projects, we just thought it was a chance worth taking," said Stallings, who had big man A.J. Ogilvy at the time and was looking for insurance.
"The first individual workout wasn't that hard, but Festus couldn't get through it," Stallings said. "He was learning everything for the first time. He didn't know the terminology. He had never been on a team."
So Vandy redshirted Ezeli in his first season, but midway through, the Commodores noticed that Ogilvy was having trouble scoring in practice. That was because of Ezeli's defense. Offensively, though, it was still a struggle for Ezeli whenever things started to speed up.
But the staff saw the raw potential, and Ezeli listened. He trusted. He was coached. And he excelled.
"He now has a feel for the game," Stallings said. "He has made himself an effective player. I think it's very rare. All of us are looking for more finished products. But we all understood if the payday came, if it really came, if he understood the game, if he was experienced, then it was going to give him a chance to be different than other guys. He didn't learn the game in elementary school like I did. He was trying to learn the game while competing effectively in the SEC. That makes it even more amazing."
Ezeli went from 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in limited time as a redshirt freshman to a modest 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds as a sophomore behind Ogilvy.
Then, with Ogilvy gone last season, Ezeli averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds, becoming one of the most improved players in the country and a second-team all-SEC honoree, something that he told Stallings he couldn't believe when he received the news.
"Watch our NCAA tournament game against Richmond, and he was the best player on the floor for us by far," Stallings said. "He gives us a chance with his athleticism, his defensive presence and playing with his back to the basket. He can score, get fouled and is now a legitimate post-scoring guy. His free throw shooting has gone from 39 percent to 60 percent to 70 percent in SEC play. The game used to speed up too much for him. Now he can slow it down."
Ezeli isn't ready to pronounce himself ready for the big boys just yet. He said he knows he has to become much more of a finished product. But the NBA has taken on much riskier projects. For now, he's focused on getting the Commodores to a level they've never achieved.
"I just want to do whatever I can to help us win," he said. "We have so much talent on this team. And that's another reason why I work so hard. I don't want to be the person who holds this team down. I love this game now. I love the people around me, great teammates. That's why I keep playing the game. I love improving.
"My parents told me I was an unusual child. My first name is Ifeanyi, and that means 'nothing is impossible with God.' That sets the tone for my journey while I'm alive. I would never been able to predict that all of this would have happened."
• The U.S. World University Games team -- led by Purdue coach Matt Painter (U.S. team head coach) along with Butler coach Brad Stevens and Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin (U.S. assistants) -- continues to lose key players. Xavier's Tu Holloway turned down the invite to stay and play with his XU teammates. Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor is having minor ankle surgery. And now Painter said that UConn forward Alex Oriakhi is also out in order to rest an injury. Stevens said losing Oriakhi will be a big blow since the team that heads to China next month for the competition needs a rebounder like him in the tournament. Painter said Detroit's Ray McCallum Jr. and UConn's Shabazz Napier were added to the tryout list. Pitt's Ashton Gibbs and Syracuse's Scoop Jardine are still on the roster and are certainly favored to make the squad.
• There are still 22 players trying to make the U.S. squad and they'll compete and train in Colorado Springs from Aug. 4-7. The event runs Aug. 13-22 in Shenzhen, China. A number of players could use this international stage as a springboard for their college seasons; these players include Alabama's JaMychal Green, Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, Kentucky's Darius Miller, Northwestern's John Shurna, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, Michigan State's Draymond Green, Missouri's Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis.
But perhaps more than any other player, Cincinnati's Yancy Gates needs to make this team and show he can be a force in order for the Bearcats to continue their rise in the Big East. Last season, he was suspended for a game due to team-related issues. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Gates can come out of this looking like a team player and a stronger player who can change his image with a positive performance in China.
• Painter said fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel is tired of answering questions about his right knee (ACL surgery). And so are the Boilermakers. He said Hummel should be good to go once the season starts. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers are troubled by the foot surgery for John Hart that will keep him out for an extended period. Hart has had trouble with his right foot for quite some time.
• Villanova coach Jay Wright said JayVaughn Pinkston has been cleared by the school to play for the Wildcats this season. Pinkston was not allowed to play last season due to an assault charge. He was expected to have a major impact on last season's team prior to the incident. The Wildcats are prepping for a trip to Amsterdam, where they will play a few national teams. Wright said the Wildcats will be much different than any squad he's coached in recent years, with the team centered more around big men rather than being guard-oriented.
• Michigan coach John Beilein said the addition of freshmen guards Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge should allow Stu Douglass to return to his natural off-guard position. Losing Darius Morris to the NBA draft was a huge blow to the Wolverines, but Tim Hardaway Jr. showed with the U-19 team in Latvia that he can create quite well with the ball in his hands. If the freshmen can be facilitators and Douglass can play off them, the Wolverines may not take a step back. Michigan is in the Maui Invitational in a loaded field, has to travel to upstart Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and gets a sleeper Big 12 team at home in Iowa State. The Wolverines are likely going to add a nonconference game at Arkansas that will take place during the Big Ten season.
• While on a recruiting trip in February, North Carolina coach Roy Williams took a side trip to an aircraft carrier in San Diego to see what it would be like in advance of the Carrier Classic on Nov. 11 against Michigan State. The USS Carl Vinson will be the host of the game, but it wasn't the ship that Williams toured. Williams wanted to see how this would work with a game on top of the ship deck. He couldn't get over the narrow passageways through the ship and wondered how his taller players would maneuver through the ship to get to the deck. Well, apparently there will be a lift that will help that occur so that shouldn't be a problem.
• Williams isn't ruling out Leslie McDonald coming back this season from an ACL injury. Williams said McDonald will have surgery on Aug. 3 and made it clear there's no reason to make any declarative statements at this juncture about a return.
• There was no consensus among the coaches in Orlando about whether to add a stipend, how it would be handled and how it could be divided up for all student-athletes. UConn's Jim Calhoun and Louisville's Rick Pitino said they would like to see $75 to $100 a week for the athletes -- roughly $400 a month.
• Not one coach endorsed the NCAA's new draft early-entry withdrawal date of April 10, 2012, after which no player will be allowed to enter the NBA draft. Makes you wonder why this was passed. Every coach who discussed it said it would lead to more poor decisions of players leaving early.
• Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy tossed out this prediction about Vanderbilt: The Commodores are a Final Four contender.
• Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor has gone to the Fred Hill makeover school. Hill, the former Rutgers head coach and current Northwestern assistant, was bald when he was head coach of the Scarlet Knights. Now he's gone with long hair in the back and new glasses. As for Taylor, he got rid of his famed mustache and dark hair. He's gone with something of an auburn or almost light red look. He was standing to the side of our TV set, and I wasn't the only one who had no idea who he was until you could read ODU on his golf shirt.
• Stanford is prepping for a trip to Spain in early September. The Cardinal and coach Johnny Dawkins need to get away to figure out who will stand out for them now that Jeremy Green is gone.
• New Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson squeezed in a team trip to Italy next month, which will be critical for him to get to know his players more and see how Boston College transfer Rakim Sanders meshes with a team that won the MAAC regular-season title last season and is back almost in full.
• The travel some of these coaches put on themselves is a bit ridiculous. Dawkins was in Orlando on Monday, then took off for Phoenix and then Los Angeles before he headed back to Orlando by Thursday. Temple coach Fran Dunphy was in Orlando on Monday and was off to Phoenix before a return to Orlando by the end of the week.
• New Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has reviewed his team enough to know that scoring up front will be a challenge. He said he'll likely go with four guards on the court on a consistent basis.
• Northwestern's Bill Carmody clearly wanted to be noticed in showing his school spirit. He had a rather loud pair of purple sweat pants that I'm not sure you could or would want to buy at the campus bookstore. Michigan State's Tom Izzo went with Spartan green, which Carmody pointed out, but the green was certainly more muted than the purple.
• A high-level NCAA source said there will be discussion at the presidential level within the membership of closing the gap of full cost of attendance for student-athletes. That gap is estimated at $2,000 to $5,000 a year.
But the source said that's likely as far as any pay-for-play would go. He added that the full cost of attendance won't be universal, but rather along conference lines. If the Big Ten or SEC choose to do so, then it would once the legislation is cleared. But if the Ivy League or NEC decided against such a move, they wouldn't have to participate.
The other issue that could complicate things is the potential deficit reduction that could affect Pell Grants and other federal money. Those cost of attendance gaps have been aided by the addition of grants. The discussion at the presidential level will be the financial need of those who require assistance.
The source said the discussion has been strong and vibrant, but to assume that the movement is headed toward a true pay-for-play system would be naive. "It's not going there,'' said the source.
• Kentucky coach John Calipari said Tuesday night that Jon Hood may need to redshirt after suffering a torn ACL in a pickup game Monday. "We'll see how it goes,'' he said. "It's a possibility. It might help him.'' Calipari said that having Hood work out against the loaded incoming recruiting class will help him in the long run if he sits out this season.
• Iona is the preseason favorite to win the MAAC, and head coach Tim Cluess is doing what he can to strengthen the schedule. The Gaels are in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (with Alabama, Purdue, Temple, Wichita State, Maryland and Colorado), will head to dangerous Marshall and possibly Arkansas, and will play Tulane at Madison Square Garden. The Gaels will also hit the road for games at William & Mary and Hofstra. The only "marquee" home game is Saint Joseph's. Iona, like a number of mid-major schools, has a hard time finding home games.
• According to Cluess, Iona won't know until the fall if Arizona transfer Momo Jones will be eligible to play this season. Cluess said the paperwork is in and Jones is attempting to become eligible immediately through a waiver because of an ill grandmother. Jones would potentially join Scott Machado and Michael Glover in what could be a seriously loaded MAAC team.
• Long Island University is the favorite to repeat as NEC champs yet coach Jim Ferry couldn't get a decent slate of games. The Blackbirds will play 11 of their first 12 games away from home with matchups at Hofstra, at Old Dominion and at Penn State, followed by neutral-site games against Radford then either Vermont or Marist, then at Iona, at home against Wagner in a league game, at Mount Saint Mary's, at Lafayette, at Columbia and at Norfolk State. This isn't a schedule that will get the Blackbirds an at-large berth obviously since the NEC never produces one. But it proves yet again how difficult it is for even quality teams at a lower-level to simply play at home prior to conference play.
• Xavier got great news when it learned that Vanderbilt transfer Andre Walker will be eligible immediately for his last season. Walker was a solid change of pace player for the Commodores in the 15 games he played for them last season. Walker will be a solid backup to Tu Holloway, if not a side partner. Holloway chose to bypass the World University Games team this summer heading off to China so he could focus on playing with his teammates and going to school.