John Jenkins is the scorer. Jeffery Taylor is the athlete. Brad Tinsley is the solid point guard. Festus Ezeli is the big man threat on offense and defense.
But who is the leader of this Vanderbilt men’s basketball team?
“I would say there is not a clear-cut leader on this team,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said before practice on Thursday. “I suppose in some ways that is unfortunate but that is the way it has been the whole time. I don’t think it is fair for us to complain or point to, ‘Well there is this kind of leadership or that kind of leadership.’ We’ve had the same kind of leadership the entire year and we have been able to succeed and manage.
“That part is what it is and it is not going to change this year. We have who we have and the personalities are what they are. Fortunately, in most instances, these guys don’t have to be led. They do a good job of taking care of themselves and doing what they are supposed to do.”
The lack of a definitive leader might have cost No. 18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in a demoralizing loss to visiting Tennessee, in which the Commodores blew an 11-point second-half lead and scored just nine points the final 13:06.
As the margin began to diminish, Vanderbilt (20-7, 8-5 Southeastern Conference), which had won its previous five games, began to unravel. With the league’s leading scorer, Jenkins, bottled up — he was 4-of-13 from the field — the Commodores didn’t have anyone step up and rally the team in a way that halted UT's momentum.
The Commodores have three seniors, but two are walk-ons — Joe Duffy and Chris Meriwether — who play very little and the other (Darshawn McClellan) is redshirting. Tinsley, Jenkins, Ezeli, Taylor and Andre Walker — all juniors except for Jenkins, who is a sophomore — all have the skills and experience to fit into that leadership role but none sticks out above the rest.
“If we would have won [against Tennessee] no one would have said anything about a leader,” Jenkins said. “Now that we lost, people want to talk about being leaders and stuff. So it is basically doing what we have been doing the rest of the year.”
But it wasn’t the first time they have fallen into that trap. The Commodores blew double-digit second half leads at South Carolina and at Tennessee in successive weeks in January. Later that month they looked lost in a stunning 89-78 setback at home to Arkansas.
“That has kind of been a little bit of a weak point this season, is just holding guys accountable,” Tinsley said. “We definitely have to bring that to a higher level as we close the season.”
Just three games remain on Vanderbilt’s regular-season schedule with a matchup against LSU (10-17, 2-10) up next at 12:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network). The Commodores’ resume is still strong enough to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament even if they have blemishes down the stretch — they play at No. 22 Kentucky next Tuesday and end the season at home against No. 13 Florida on March 5.
But doubts about their ability to close out victories have risen again after the loss to Tennessee. Vanderbilt turned the ball over 16 times — “We were just soft with the ball,” Stallings said — which led to 21 Volunteer points. Plus, their two centers Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang weren’t as much of a factor in the second half, committing a combined nine fouls after halftime as both fouled out.
“It was a weird game,” Taylor said. “I feel like it was a little bit of an anomaly. ... Even though we lost the game we are in a pretty good position right now. You can choose to look at all the negatives but there are still a lot of positives about our team. Obviously, every team goes through a season where they have to work on things and find their identity. I guess we still have some work to do.”
• Taylor had an ice pack on his right wrist before practice on Thursday. The starting forward said his wrist has been bothering him for a while and flares up here and there, especially after breakway dunks.
“Everything is fine,” he said. “It gets really sore when I dunk a lot.”
• LSU has lost 10 straight games and has the league’s worst scoring offense (62.4 points per game). The Tigers are led by Ralston Turner (12.7 ppg) and Andre Stringer (11.7 ppg).