Better defense sparks Vanderbilt’s sudden surge

When Vanderbilt tumbled out of the Top 25 in mid December after losses to the likes of Cleveland State and Indiana State, it was easy to dismiss the highly touted Commodores as vastly overhyped.

One month later, however, it may be time to reconsider.

Buoyed by the return of center Festus Ezeli and a sudden but sharp improvement on the defensive end, the Commodores are playing like Kentucky's stiffest challenger in the SEC. They're 4-0 in conference play and they've reeled off eight straight wins including 74-57 thrashing of Marquette on Dec. 29 and a 69-59 road win at Alabama on Thursday night.

Ezeli is only just starting to regain his rhythm and conditioning since returning from a knee injury last month, but the 6-foot-11 center's presence has made an immediate impact on Vanderbilt's defense. Opponents are shooting 34.9 percent against the Commodores in SEC play and scoring just 0.9 points per possession, easily the best in the league in both categories by a wide margin.

Granted Auburn, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama won't conjure memories of the Hank Gathers-led LMU teams offensively, but those are impressive stats even for a small four-game sample size. The Commodores held cold-shooting Alabama without a point for the final 7:37 of the first half on Thursday night, seizing control of a game they eventually led by as many as 23 points.

"What we did tonight, I thought was very impressive," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told the Nashville Tennessean. "We didn't play the first five minutes of the game very well and we didn't play the last five of it very well, but I thought the middle 30 we were pretty sharp."

One of the primary reasons for Vanderbilt's recent history of NCAA tournament flops is the Commodores have been unable to come up with key stops when they needed them, so this level of defense is both surprising and encouraging.

With John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor providing consistent perimeter production and Ezeli showing signs of regaining his scoring prowess in the paint, Vanderbilt possesses all the offensive firepower it needs for a strong finish in the SEC. What will determine whether the Commodores challenge Kentucky or regress to the middle of the pack is if they continue to thrive defensively against better competition.

Up next for Vanderbilt is talented Mississippi State, followed by home games against rival Tennessee and dangerous Middle Tennessee State and a road trip to Arkansas and Florida. Those games should provide a litmus test for whether Vanderbilt's defensive improvement is legit or merely a brief mirage.

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