Looking down the road, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings anticipates Festus Ezeli's return will strengthen his team.
In the near future, though, he’s not sure how the Commodores will play with the 6-foot-11 center back on the court. That’s why Stallings is hesitant not only to rush Ezeli back but to say when he again will be in the lineup.
Still, Stallings might take a chance, roll the dice and throw him into the mix against Davidson on the road on Wednesday night. Yet, again, he might wait a week and hold Ezeli for the Dec. 17 against Indiana State, the beginning of a three-game homestand.
“I think it is a possibility that he plays [against Davidson]. If he plays, he won’t play a lot,” Stallings said. “We’re trying to break him in slowly. He is coming along nicely and doing well. ... [But] he is not 100 percent, a little tenatitive and certainly not his normal self, which is why he may not be ready to play yet.”
Ezeli practiced with the team on Monday and Tuesday for the first time since spraining ligaments in his right knee six weeks ago. He has yet to play a game in his senior season but before practice on Tuesday he said he was 60 to 70 percent. He added that he can jump and cut on his knee fine but is easing back into running up and down the floor along with improving his defensive slides.
“I can go,” said Ezeli, who averaged 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks last year. “Just put me on the court. I’m ready to go.”
The Commodores (5-3) have struggled without him, suffering consecutive overtime losses last week to Xavier and Louisville. In both games, they failed to hold second-half leads.
“It is just hard being on the bench and not being able to help because I know I can help a lot,” Ezeli said. “It is tough for me. I can’t sleep comfortably with losses like that.”
Vanderbilt stays on the road for the second straight game, tipping off against Davidson at 6 p.m.
The Wildcats (6-1) have won four straight, losing only to No. 7 Duke.
Vanderbilt hasn’t played at Davidson since 1968 — the only time the Commodores lost to the Wildcats. The schools have met just four times, most recently last year with Vanderbilt rolling to an 80-52 victory even without leading scorer John Jenkins (concussion).
Stallings cautioned that getting Ezeli back won’t immediately fix the team’s problems. Quite the contrary, he said.
“Quite frankly, when Festus starts playing again we are going to go through another adjustment, whereby we may get worse before we get better,” Stallings said. “That’s something I don’t think people understand because we had to adopt to a different way of playing without him. Well, now we’ll have to get used to playing back with him, which is not necessarily an easy thing to do.”
Just his presence in practice, though, Stallings said has given his team an “energy boost.”
“It is pretty exciting to see him back out there, going up and down with us and being a part of the team on the court again,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “We’re a much better team with Festus.”