Now that senior center Festus Ezeli is back on the floor, Vanderbilt might finally have what it takes to live up to the high preseason expectations saddled upon the program.
Coming off a strong season debut, the 6-foot-11 Ezeli looks to lead the No. 25 Commodores to a second straight victory Saturday against visiting Indiana State.
While John Jenkins (21.3 points per game) and Jeffery Taylor (16.6) are two of the top players in the nation, the return of Ezeli should give Vanderbilt (6-3) a chance to back up its preseason No. 7 ranking which it fell from after losing at home to Cleveland State in its second game.
Ezeli, who averaged career highs of 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds while starting all 34 contests in 2010-11, missed the first six games this season after being suspended for accepting meals and a hotel room from a booster. He missed two more because of a right knee injury.
In his return in Vanderbilt's last game Dec. 7, Ezeli had 15 points and six boards in 21 minutes off the bench to help the Commodores to an 87-83 win at Davidson.
"We don't win this game if Festus doesn't play, I don't think there's any question about that," coach Kevin Stallings said.
Ezeli, who sprained two ligaments in his knee six weeks ago, said he is nearing 100 percent.
"It feels great," Ezeli said. "I have been itching to play for a while and so it was good to be back out there with these guys. That's why I'm here. I've felt a little useless on the side."
The return of the Nigerian native also could take some of the scoring pressure off Jenkins - who finished with 22 points - and Taylor, who scored a career-high 30 against Davidson.
Coming off consecutive overtime losses to ranked opponents in Xavier and Louisville, the Commodores shot 48.4 percent and scored a season-high 42 points in the paint.
"Before the game we talked about being aggressive with the ball and trying to get in the lane, whether that be through the pass or the drive," Taylor said.
The Commodores look to maintain that aggressive approach when they come off a lengthy break to begin a stretch of three games in five days.
Vanderbilt is facing Indiana State (7-2) for the first time since falling 88-74 to the Sycamores on Dec. 22, 1984.
The reigning Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions, Indiana State is coming off a 68-57 win over Division II Maryville University of St. Louis last Saturday. Myles Walker scored 20 points and Dwayne Lathan added 13 as the Sycamores bounced back from a 74-65 loss at Boise State on Dec. 3.
Lathan is averaging a team-leading 11.8 points and 15.3 in the last three contests.
Indiana State, which lost 77-60 to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, has dropped 10 straight games against Top 25 opponents since a 72-64 win over then-No. 15 Butler on Dec. 9, 2006.