Monday, Vanderbilt looked like the team it was expected to be. The Commodores dominated from beginning to end. Forward Jeffery Taylor scored 29 points. Guard John Jenkins added 19. Lance Goulbourne, a role player, contributed a double-double.
Everything appeared perfect – except for Vanderbilt's 6-4 record at tip-off and center Festus Ezeli, perhaps the team's top NBA prospect, cheering his team from the bench in sweats.
Preseason rank: 7th
Best wins: Oregon, North Carolina State, Davidson
Losses: Cleveland State, Xavier, at Louisville, Indiana State
Preseason rank: 11th
Best wins: Belmont, Miami
Losses: Michigan, Georgetown (OT), Murray State, at Louisville
Preseason rank: 16th
Best wins: Valparaiso, New Mexico State, Clemson
Losses: Mississippi State, San Diego State, at Florida, Gonzaga
Preseason rank: 17th
Best win: Penn
Losses: Loyola Marymount, Middle Tennessee, vs. Kansas, vs. Michigan, Texas
Preseason rank: 19th
Best wins: Wichita State, Purdue, VCU, Oklahoma State
Losses: Georgetown, at Dayton, Kansas State
Preseason rank: 21st
Best win: at Georgia
Losses: Presbyterian, Marshall (OT), at Xavier
Preseason rank: 23rd
Best wins: Oral Roberts, Arizona, Butler
Losses: at Illinois, Michigan State
Preseason rank: 24th
Best wins: Georgia, Denver
Losses: Missouri, at San Diego State
Monday's opponent was overmatched Longwood. The next opponent, Lafayette, was just as overwhelmed two days later. Vanderbilt was supposed to defeat these teams by a combined 59 points. Cleveland State and Indiana State, though, presented more problems, not to mention Louisville and Xavier.
"We thought we were going to come out here and beat everybody," Jenkins said. "You've just got to adjust. … We might have been overconfident."
A top-10 team in the preseason, Vanderbilt already has those four losses, including two to mid-majors at home. The Commodores are a veteran team but they are struggling to close out games and hit free throws.
Vanderbilt isn't the only team ranked in the preseason that struggling early. Seven other teams in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 weren't ranked in the most recent poll. But the Commodores are the highest-ranked team in the preseason to be unranked now.
An NCAA suspension for receiving illegal benefits and a knee injury have kept Ezeli out of all but two games. There also have been missed games by Jenkins and backup big man Steve Tchiengang.
"The adversity we've faced is surprising," coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've had multiple games where we've been minus more than one player and more than one starter. The injury bug has really been a problem as much as practice as in games. It starts restricting your ability to get better."
One of the most glaring issues has been Ezeli's absence. He averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds last season in 23.5 minutes per game. But the adjustment now isn't learning how to play without Ezeli. The challenge is getting re-acclimated to Ezeli when he's in the lineup. He returned Dec. 7 against Davidson, scoring 15 points with six rebounds off the bench.
"We go through a process of re-adjusting to Festus," Stallings said. "It doesn't change much defensively. It entirely changes the offensive end. We're going to stick with what we got here. These guys are used to playing together. Whenever Fes comes back, he comes back."
The knee injury flared up in the game following the win over Davidson, 10 days later against Indiana State. Ezeli scored only four points and had four turnovers in 22 minutes in a 61-55 home loss. Ezeli hasn't played in either of the past two games, apparently at his own behest.
"[I'm] trying to get some rest," Ezeli said Tuesday. "I guess it is healed, but I felt like I needed some rest."
For whatever reason, Vandy hasn't had the look of a veteran team that returned nearly every player from last season's 23-11 squad.
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In three of the Commodores' four losses, they led in the last 10 minutes. Against Indiana State, Vandy led by eight with 6:31 to go before the Sycamores went on a 12-0 run to take control.
Against Louisville, Vanderbilt led by nine with 8:49 remaining, but Louisville rallied and forced overtime. The Commodores led by four in overtime, then struggled late in the extra period and lost 62-60. Vanderbilt was 3-of-6 from the line and had three turnovers down the stretch in regulation.
Against Xavier, Vanderbilt led by as much as 10 in the second half, but Xavier's Mark Lyons hit a jumper with six seconds left to send the game into OT. The Commodores never led in overtime and fell 82-70.
Even in wins over Oregon State and North Carolina State, Vanderbilt almost blew second-half leads before holding on.
"We have veteran guys and we should know how and should be able to close out games," Stallings said. "You're not going to win all of those games, but we got one or two guys who have let us down from a consistency in effort and energy standpoint."
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One player who hasn't disappointed is senior forward Jeffery Taylor. Against Longwood, Taylor played despite a stomach bug that kept up the night before and caused him to miss the shootaround. He was sick at halftime, but still was 12-of-14 from the field and finished with 29 points.
"We had a tough go so far," Taylor said. "We're not where we want to be right now, but we understand it's a marathon season."
The Commodores' next game is at Marquette on Thursday. That gives Ezeli and some others a week to get healthy.
The hope is that a healthy team will mean better all-around play. Vanderbilt is struggling in spots where it has succeeded in the past. Jenkins, Taylor and point guard Brad Tinley are having trouble from the free throw line; the Commodores' free throw percentage has dropped from 74.3 percent last season to 66.4 percent this season. Jenkins is shooting 78.6 percent – good but a far cry from last season's 89.4 percent. Taylor is down to 60.4 percent from 71.9. Tinsley is at 76 percent after shooting 82.4 percent last season.
Defense also has been an issue. Vanderbilt is allowing teams to shoot 44.6 percent from the field; the same cast of characters held teams to 41.1 percent shooting a year ago.
"We'll come out on the other side and be fine," Stallings said. "We just have to endure this as long as it goes."
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