DENVER — Festus Ezeli is glad he doesn’t have to worry about defending teammate Jeffery Taylor. Especially right now.
Taylor, Vanderbilt’s versatile 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, is playing arguably his best basketball of the season, and at exactly the right time.
As No. 5 seed Vanderbilt opens up the NCAA Tournament with a 3:10 p.m. tip-off Thursday (TBS) against No. 12 seed Richmond (27-7), Taylor is averaging 18.3 points a game in his last six contests. In three contests at the SEC Tournament last week in Atlanta, he averaged 20.7 points — the first time all season he has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games for the Commodores (23-10).
“He is a competitor. This is where the great ones shine and this is where he is coming out and is showing us that he wants to win. He is on my team so I am happy for that,” Ezeli said on Wednesday before practice at the Pepsi Center. “I think it is going to be really hard to stop him. When he has his head in the game, it is really, really difficult to stop him.”
By all accounts, Taylor’s never been more tuned in this season. The dynamic junior is looking more like the player many saw as a possible first-round NBA draft pick before the season began.
“He has relaxed himself a little bit, and being relaxed has given him more confidence,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “All those things start feeding together and that allows for more consistency.”
In Vanderbilt’s 87-81 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament last Friday, he not only scored 20 points but did so in dominant fashion. Fourteen came after halftime, as he and guard John Jenkins accounted for 22 of 25 Vanderbilt points during a five-minute stretch in the second half.
A lot of Taylor's baskets where created off drives where he screeched past defenders to layups and high-flying slam dunks, a consistent part of his game.
“I have just tried to stay aggressive on a consistent basis,” Taylor, who is averaging 15.1 points for the season, said. “I feel like throughout the season, in some games where I didn’t play very well, I wasn’t really consistent in my aggressiveness. I just tried to change that and obviously things go well for you when your shot goes in.”
His shot from the outside has rimmed out a lot lately, however.
Taylor, a native of Norkopping, Sweden, wanted to add 3-point shooting to his repertoire to help with his dreams of reaching the NBA. For most of the season, he had been consistent from beyond the arc, shooting 40.2 percent through his first 23 games. In the last 10, however, he is just 6-of-31 (19.3 percent).
Still, he doesn’t plan to let up from outside.
“If people will let me shoot it, it is the right shot for me. I’m going to take it,” he said. “I’m going to keep on being aggressive and carrying on what I’ve been doing.”
Even when his offensive production isn’t there, his teammates and coaches don’t think he has let that impact his defense — possibly his most underrated tool. Taylor often draws opponents’ best offensive players — like Florida’s Erving Walker, LSU’s Ralston Turner, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight — and has caused problems with his length and quickness. So much so, that he was named to the SEC’s All-Defensive Team.
“With Jeff, if he is not playing well offensively he is still going to try as hard on defense,” junior Lance Goulbourne said. “Most nights he is playing great defensively so that is never a problem. ... That is the great thing about it. He never lets one part of his game effect another part of his game.”
Of course, the recent surge is great for the Commodores, but not so much for Richmond. With Ezeli and Jenkins as consistent scoring threats, stopping Taylor while not forgetting about the other two becomes quite the task.
It is a challenge Richmond coach Chris Mooney said his team hasn’t faced this season.
“He is really unique,” Mooney said of Taylor. “His highlight reel is very, very impressive. ... I think in the open court he's probably impossible to stop — an incredibly great weapon. I know he's a great player. I know he's also a tremendous defensive player. He has an impact on every game they play. I don't think we have seen anybody with his skill set this year.”
• After practicing at nearby Colorado Christian University on Wednesday, the Commodores don’t believe adjusting to the altitude in Mile-High City will be an issue — as long as they don’t think about it.
“I couldn’t really tell,” Jenkins said. “I think if I let it get to my mind, I can definitely tell it. I’m trying to block it out in that sense. I think our team is in really good shape so I think we should be all right.”
Added Taylor: “I feel it is more mental than physical, really. So you can’t let it get to your mind. You got to practice just as hard. That is what we have been doing.”
• Jenkins said his toe injury, which he suffered nearly two weeks, ago is still bothering him but says he will have to fight through it.
The sophomore guard from Hendersonville scored 29 points in Vanderbilt’s win over Mississippi State last Friday — one day after sitting out the Commodores’ game against LSU due to turf toe. On Saturday against Florida, though, he had just 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
• Andre Walker hopes to play more of a role on Thursday than he did last week at the SEC Tournament. The 6-foot-7 junior forward scored just six points and grabbed only six rebounds in minimum time in the three games. On Saturday against Florida, he played just four minutes.
“I don’t know how much impact I expect Andre to have [on Thursday],” Stallings said. “That remains to be seen. Obviously he’ll come off the bench. He has had an unfortunate season. ... There is no way that is 100 percent. So we just kind of learned to live with it. Just like anybody else who comes off the bench, how much he contributes will depend on how well he plays.”
Walker has played in just 14 games this season. He missed four due to mononucleosis and 13 because of a severe high ankle sprain. He returned on Feb. 19 and has played in six of Vanderbilt’s eight games since then.
Walker, who started the first eight contests, has come off the bench and his minutes have ranged from three to 20. He said the impact of the injury has also carried over to how he mentally approaches the game.
“It is just weird because some things that you used to be able to do, you can’t,” he said. “So you have to learn to gear your game toward doing something else. But I am getting a little better each day with it.”