For more than a month, Vanderbilt missed the inside presence of Festus Ezeli.
The 6-foot-11 center returned last week from a knee injury and immediately pitched in for the No. 25 Commodores, scoring 15 points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots in a victory at Davidson.
That energy, excitement and enthusiasm he showed during a standout junior season a year ago hasn’t disappeared — even in practice. Teammate Lance Goulbourne can vouch for that.
The Vanderbilt forward received an inadvertent elbow from Ezeli during practice last Saturday, resulting in a concussion. Goulbourne, who has started all nine games, hadn’t practiced all week and was hopeful he’d be able to participate on Thursday night in preparation for Saturday’s home game against Indiana State (4:30 p.m., CSS).
“It is a physical game so things are going to happen,” Goulbourne said. “People’s elbows are swinging all over the place so you may get hit. He was just trying to post up across the lane, and I was guarding him. He caught me in the face.
"I wasn’t mad at him, but it hurt a little bit.”
Having everyone on the floor together has been an issue for the Commodores (6-3) over the last two seasons. Numerous injuries and illnesses during 2010-11 resulted in shuffled starting lineups and low numbers of participants at practice.
That is starting to become a problem this winter as well. Four players have missed games due to injury. Reserve center Josh Henderson is out eight to 12 weeks due to a stress fracture. Forward Steve Tchiengang (concussion) and guard John Jenkins (ankle) each missed a game.
“It is annoying when one guy goes down and when he comes back another guy goes down,” Goulbourne said. “But that is just the nature of the game. It is a physical game. People are going to get hurt. You just got to keep playing and do what you can do to win games.”
Against Davidson, Vanderbilt showed what it could do offensively when everyone is on the floor and healthy. In addition to Ezeli’s effort, Jeffery Taylor scored a career-high 30 points and Jenkins added 22 as the trio combined for 67 of the team’s 87 points.
Before the game, coach Kevin Stallings said he was concerned about how the team would adjust to having Ezeli back in the lineup. Goulbourne thought the flow of the offense went unaffected, but Ezeli admitted it was different.
“In the first half you could kind of tell we were off-speed a little bit,” Ezeli said. “I feel like they forgot how to play with me, which is understandable. It has been a while. It only took like a half. Plus, the game was kind of sped up for me. The first half I was standing around like, ‘Dang, these guys are really fast.’”
Ezeli said his right knee is still sore and is about 70 percent.
“I’m waiting on my explosiveness to get back,” he said. “Right now, it is getting better because I have been practicing. ... It will come eventually. More playing will get my muscles back.”
Ezeli expects to be in the lineup again on Saturday and could get his first start of the season. Goulbourne, on the other hand, is questionable.
“That is my plan [to play],” he said on Thursday afternoon. “I still have to talk to the [athletic] trainers and doctors and see what is going on. I really don’t know what they’re thinking. I know what I’m thinking. They are the guys who have the last say in whether I play or not.”
Having Goulbourne on the floor would be a huge plus for Vanderbilt. He leads the team in rebounding (7.4 rpg) and is scoring 10.1 points per game.
Indiana State (7-2) isn’t a pushover, either. The Sycamores reached the NCAA Tournament last year and should contend for the Missouri Valley Conference championship. They’ve beaten Texas Tech, with close losses to Minnesota and Boise State.
It will be the first of three straight home games for the Commodores before they play at No. 11 Marquette on Dec. 29.
“The whole country knows how dangerous this team can be, but I feel like sometimes we are the only people will know how good we can be,” Ezeli said. “We have a threat at every position, which is crazy. ... We can be really, really good. We lost a couple there, but we will get it back. I’m back now so I’m excited to get it back rolling again.”