Festus Ezeli is a towering 6 feet, 11 inches tall.
When he raises his long arms, he becomes even bigger. His slam dunks look effortless, as his feet barely come off the ground.
Thus, getting to the rim and grabbing the basketball for a rebound should come easy for the Vanderbilt center. It hasn’t looked that way in the second of half of the last three games.
In Vanderbilt’s three Southeastern Conference contests, Ezeli has mustered a total of just eight rebounds after halftime. He isn’t alone, though. In the second half of their last three games, the Commodores have been outrebounded 70-48, including 37-15 on the offensive glass.
“I think it is a mental thing, an individual thing. You’ve got to decide you are going to go rebound in the second half,” Ezeli said. “I don’t understand why there is such a big difference. We are the same team. They are the same team. We are going to get that right. Starting [Wednesday] it is going to get right.”
If Ezeli and Vanderbilt (12-4) don’t fix their rebounding woes, it could lead to a 1-3 start in SEC play. The Commodores host Mississippi at 8 p.m. on Wednesday (it will be televised on CSS). The Rebels (12-6) are trying to avoid a 0-4 start and rise out of the SEC West cellar.
Vanderbilt has lost two of its last three, with both losses (South Carolina and Tennessee) coming on the road. The Commodores are ready to be back in the friendly confines of Memorial Gym. Even there, though, they haven’t done their best at protecting the glass.
In a 73-66 win against Georgia on Jan. 12, Vanderbilt was outrebounded 27-16 in the second half. This was after the Commodores won the battle in the first half, 20-17, with six rebounds from Ezeli. In fact, in all three league games, Vanderbilt has had the edge on the glass during the game’s first 20 minutes, outrebounding those three opponents 66-52.
Then something happens — or doesn’t happen — in the second half.
That became a huge problem at Tennessee on Saturday as the Vols not only had a 20-16 edge in rebounds, but grabbed 12 offensive boards. Those led to 15 second-chance points, boosting Tennessee to a 67-64 victory after Vanderbilt held a 17-point lead in the first half.
“They just came out in the second half and were the aggressors,” Ezeli, who is averaging 6.7 rebounds a game, said. “They played like they were hungry for it. That should never happen.”
Nor should blowing double-digit second half leads but that has happened twice now for the Commodores. They were up by 14 against South Carolina — only to lose in overtime — and led by 11 with more than 12 minutes to go against Tennessee.
“I wouldn’t say it is shaking our confidence,” Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley said. “It has definitely been a problem, recently.”
Vanderbilt hopes to have an answer this week. Though the Commodores are back at Memorial Gym for two consecutive games, they don’t have an easy task in front of them.
Mississippi is in desperation mode, trying to get back on the winning track after losing three straight — this on the heels of a 12-3 non-conference slate. Then on Saturday, the Commodores host No. 22 St. Mary’s College out of the West Coast Conference. The Gaels are 16-2, including road wins against Mississippi State and Texas Tech, and reached the Sweet 16 last season.
If Vanderbilt can’t figure out how to close out a win this week, it might be limping instead of standing tall.
“I think maybe you just have to win one in a similar situation and you can derive some confidence from that,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “We practice situations all the time, and we just let a couple get away from us. Hopefully the next time we are in that situation, we will be able to close it out and our guys can generate some confidence from that, some belief in that.”
• Andre Walker rolled into practice on a motorized scooter, crutches at his side and a huge boot on his left foot. The starting forward, who suffered a high ankle sprain nearly three weeks ago in practice, will not play against Mississippi and will most likely be unavailable for Saturday’s game against St. Mary’s, too.
The 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior has started in eight games this year but has missed just as many due to a bout with mononucleosis (four games) and his injured ankle (four games).
• Steve Tchiengang’s left foot also was getting looked at before practice on Tuesday. The athletic training staff wrapped his ankle as the forward is still being bothered by an Achilles tendon injury he sustained against South Carolina on Jan. 8. The 6-foot-9 junior has played in all 16 games this season, averaging 17.6 minutes a game off the bench.
He is expected to play on Wednesday.
• Tendonitis in Ezeli’s left knee has hampered him for a couple weeks. But the starting center, who also hasn’t missed a game all year, doesn’t want to use it as an excuse.
“It shouldn’t bother me that much,” he said. “I’m close to 100 [percent].”
• Mississippi is led by senior guards Chris Warren (18.4 points per game) and Zach Graham (14.3 ppg). The Rebels have lost four straight at Memorial Gym dating back to 2001 and they have dropped eight of their last nine against Vanderbilt. The lone win during that stretch came in Oxford in 2008.