Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis made no secret about what he thought was the difference between his team and Vanderbilt’s in the Commodores’ 73-53 victory Monday at Memorial Gymnasium.
"The biggest stat was their 10 blocks,” Davis said. “We got great opportunities all night, but we could never intimidate them around the goal. And then they dominated us inside five feet from the goal.”
Actually, the ability to block shots also is a big difference between this year’s Vanderbilt team and any recent ones, certainly any of the ones under current coach Kevin Stallings, who is in his 11th season.
The Commodores are fourth in the SEC with 85 blocks, an average of 6.07 per contest. At that pace, they ought to surpass the school record of 174 set last season and — depending on the number of games they eventually play — could threaten 200.
As recently as 2005-06 and 2006-07, Vanderbilt had fewer than 100 blocked shots in back-to-back seasons.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job of taking advantage of (our athleticism) on the defensive end,” Stallings said. “We’ve never been a big shot blocking team, and this year we seem like we’re decent at blocking shots.”
It’s not simply a case of doing unto others as other are doing to them either. Opponents have blocked just 46 VU shots, and that disparity is completely out of line with recent history.
Only once under Stallings have the Commodores blocked more shots than their opponents, and that was by a whopping four (112-108) in 2003-04. Even last season’s record total was offset by 222 blocks against, the second-highest total allowed in program history.
The low-post combination of A.J. Ogilvy and Festus Ezeli has become a formidable one. The two have combined for at least 20 points four times in the last five games.
“We certainly have some advantages inside and I think we were able to exploit those (Monday),” Stallings said. “… That’s a good thing that we’re getting that kind of productivity out of our 5 spot.”
They’re also seeing to it that others don’t do the same.
Only nine times in the last 30 years has a Vanderbilt player averaged better than one block per game for an entire season. Three players did it twice and three others once each.
Currently both Ogilvy and Ezeli average better than 1.5 each time out.
Ezeli averages 1.85, and Ogilvy, who is second in career blocks for Vanderbilt with 121, averages 1.71. Both are among the top 10 in the conference. The only other team with two of the top 10 is South Carolina with Sam Muldrow (3.46) and Johndre Jefferson (2.00).
“The defensive intensity has picked up a whole lot – like, tremendously – since the Western Kentucky game (Dec. 11),” Ezeli said. “We’re just realizing that we have to play defense. … I just try to alter shots and block shots.”
It’s the kind of thing that can make a big difference.