Kevin Stallings can only remember one other season when injuries and illness had such a negative impact on the rhythm of his team.
That was more than 13 years ago when he was the head coach at Illinois State.
Now holding the reins at Vanderbilt, Stallings finds himself in a similar, unwanted position as the Commodores tread through countless aches and pains in the first two months of the season.
“I have only had one other year in my coaching career, at least to this point, that has been this bad,” he said. “We just have to keep fighting. We’re going to come out on the other side and be fine. We just have to endure this for how ever long this goes.”
Vanderbilt (7-4) could be without 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli for the second straight game when it hosts Lafayette at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (FSN).
Ezeli played in his first two games of the season — at Davidson last week and Indiana State on Saturday — since spraining his right knee in October. Against Indiana State, however, he injured his left knee, on which he had surgery in the spring for a ruptured patella tendon. He played just 22 minutes in his first start of the season and scored only four points on 2-of-6 shooting in a 61-55 loss to the Sycamores.
Ezeli isn’t the only one who has dealt with injuries. Forwards Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang each practiced just once last week due to complications from concussions. Stallings had to adjust bringing both off the bench and starting Rod Odom and Ezeli in their place.
“We go through a process of readjusting to Festus, which entirely changes our offense. We go back to that adjustment and now he can’t play again,” Stallings said. “We’re going to stick with this. We’re gong to stick with what we’ve got here. These guys are used to playing together and whenever Festus comes back, he comes back.”
The Commodores easily handled Longwood on Monday for a 99-71 victory — just their second win in five games. Even without Ezeli, the Commodores got balanced scoring with four players scoring in double-digit figures, paced by 29 points from Jeffery Taylor.
“It definitely helped a lot, just going out there after the Indiana State loss, getting that taste out of our mouths. Kind of like a redemption game almost,” guard John Jenkins, who leads the team with 20 points a game, said. “Finals [last week] we were really stressed out, but it wasn’t an excuse at all. We had some pretty good practices leading into Indiana State and just lost.”
Against Lafayette, Vanderbilt will try to win two straight games for the first time in three weeks and build some momentum heading into Christmas break with a Dec. 29 matchup at No. 10 Marquette (10-1) looming. The Commodores edged the Golden Eagles 77-76 last year at Memorial Gymnasium.
Lafayette (4-6), out of the Patriot League, has lost four of its last five but poses a threat on the perimeter. The Leopards rank 28th in the country in 3-point shooting, having made 40 percent of their shots.
“We definitely need to finish out strong [Wednesday], going into Christmas break feeling good about ourselves,” Jenkins said. “Marquette is a really good team. We know that from last year.”