All about the SEC: Vandy dandy

The biggest factor in Vanderbilt’s return to national prominence – the guy who gives the Commodores a legitimate chance of winning the SEC East title – never played a game of high school basketball.

Instead, Festus Ezeli arrived in Nashville four years ago having only seen limited action in an AAU league. He was 6-foot-10, a phenomenal athlete, but totally lost on the court. Vanderbilt’s coaches knew they were getting a project, and Ezeli did, too, which is why he requested a redshirt season before he ever signed his scholarship papers.

Commodores coach Kevin Stallings obliged.

Festus Ezeli never played a game of high school basketball but has blossomed at Vanderbilt.
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Four years later, things couldn’t be working out any better for Ezeli – and his team.

Wednesday’s 74-66 victory over No. 24 Georgia improved Vanderbilt’s record to 12-3 overall and 1-1 in SEC play. For that, the Commodores can thank Ezeli, who scored 18 points against the Bulldogs and is now averaging 12.9 points and 6.7 rebounds on the season.

John Jenkins may average more points (18.4), and Lance Goulbourne is snaring more rebounds (7.4). But no Vanderbilt player has been as steady and consistent as the redshirt junior from Nigeria. Ezeli has reached double figures in 11 of his team’s 15 games, including 10 of the last 12.

Not bad for a guy who averaged just 3.8 points as a freshman and sophomore.

In the past Ezeli was a liability on offense. He routinely missed free throws and was often whistled for three-second violations. Now, instead of just forcing hook shots, he’s developed a handful of nice post moves in the paint to complement his size and power.

Even more important is that the guy who used to find himself out of place and out of position on the court now understands the game and all – or at least some – of its intricacies.

The result has been the resurgence of a Vanderbilt team that had appeared soft at times during the past few seasons. Two of Vanderbilt’s three losses were in overtime, and the third came in the final seconds against West Virginia.

With winnable games on the horizon against at Tennessee (Saturday) and at home against Ole Miss (Wednesday) the Commodores – and Ezeli – have a chance to enhance their reputation on a national stage.

They’re definitely off to a good start.

LEAGUE RANKINGS

(Last week’s rank in parenthesis.)

1. Kentucky (13-3, 1-1) – Terrence Jones is back on track. (1)

2. Florida (13-3, 2-0) – Kenny Boynton came up huge in overtime against Tennessee. (3)

3. Vanderbilt (12-3, 1-1) – Two of the Commodores’ three losses have come in overtime. (2)

4. Georgia (12-3, 1-1) – Wednesday’s loss to Vanderbilt ended the Bulldogs’ nine-game winning streak. (5)

5. Tennessee (10-6, 0-2) – The Vols are 0-2 without Bruce Pearl, and it’s only going to get worse. (4)

6. Mississippi State (9-7, 1-1) – Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost combined for 49 points in Thursday’s win over Ole Miss. (8)

7. Alabama (10-6, 2-0) – Jamychal Green had 20 points, nine boards and three blocks against South Carolina on Wednesday. (7)

8. Ole Miss (12-5, 0-2) – Nine players are averaging double-digit minutes. (6)

9. South Carolina (10-5, 1-1) – Three of the Gamecocks’ next four games are at home. (10)

10. LSU (10-7, 2-0) – Four players reached double figures in Wednesday’s victory over Arkansas. (10)

11. Arkansas (11-4, 1-1) – The Razorbacks are 11-0 at home. (9)

12. Auburn (7-9, 0-2) – Earnest Ross averages a team-high 12.3 points. (12)

WHO’S HOT?

Patric Young, Florida – The touted freshman still isn’t contributing much to the Gators offensively. But he’s developed into a huge defensive presence in the post. The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Young had seven rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench against Tennessee. He also drew two charges.

Alabama’s defense – The Crimson Tide has given up just 104 points in its first two conference games. Twelve of Alabama’s 16 opponents this season have scored 60 points or fewer. Anthony Grant’s squad is improving at just the right time.

LSU – Considering they’re generally regarded as one of the worst teams in the league, the Tigers’ 2-0 start in SEC play has come as a bit of a surprise. Offensively, LSU continues to show great balance. Malcolm White, Matt Derenbecker, Andre Stringer and Garrett Green all scored between 10 and 13 points in Wednesday’s win over Auburn.

WHO’S NOT?

Tennessee’s upcoming schedule – The Volunteers have lost three of their past four games, and it certainly doesn’t appear as if things are about to get any better. Tennessee’s next three games are against surging Vanderbilt, No. 24 Georgia and No. 10 Connecticut. And the latter two of those contests are on the road.

Darius Miller, Kentucky – The Wildcats need to get more production out of their junior guard. Miller is averaging just 7.6 points over his last six games and has missed 14 of his last 20 field goal attempts. Those are pretty mediocre numbers for an upperclassman who plays nearly 30 minutes per game.

Arkansas – The Razorbacks wasted a golden opportunity to pick up some early momentum in the SEC West race by losing to LSU 56-53 on Wednesday. The setback came just four days after John Pelphrey’s squad opened conference play with a victory over Tennessee in Fayetteville.

THREE TO WATCH

Vanderbilt at Tennessee, Saturday – The Vols can’t afford to lose any more home games.

Alabama at Arkansas, Saturday – Razorbacks coach John Pelphrey goes head-to-head with Alabama’s Anthony Grant. Both are former Florida assistants.

Georgia at Mississippi, Saturday – To prove they have truly taken that next step, the Bulldogs need to prove they can win on the road.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jan 14, 2011