A long layoff won’t sedate Vanderbilt again. At least that’s the guarantee from head coach Kevin Stallings.
By the time the Commodores tip off at No. 14 Marquette at 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2), eight days will have passed since their last game. Earlier this month, due to finals, they had 10 days off between games.
That first game back? They dropped a stunner at home to Indiana State.
Stallings expects the intensity level against the Golden Eagles to be ratcheted up several notches.
“We won’t come out flat,” he said. “I don’t expect anything that resembles flat. We are still in a transition period, which is a bad thing when you are this deep into this season. But it is just been what we’ve had. There is no other way to describe or to say it. We have a good team. We know we have a good team. It would be a tremendous accomplishment and a tremendous momentum boost if we could go up and play a great game with Marquette and get a victory.”
The Commodores (8-4) have won two straight heading into Milwaukee, where Marquette (11-1) awaits a rematch.
Exactly a year ago, in Nashville, Vanderbilt edged the Golden Eagles 77-76 as Andre Walker, now playing at Xavier, hit the game-winning layup with 4.1 seconds left. The Commodores snagged the victory despite a rare off-night from shooting guard John Jenkins. He missed his first nine 3-pointers, finishing 2-of-15 from beyond the arc for just 13 points.
“That was my worst game here,” Jenkins, a junior, said. “They did a good job of putting hands in my face and if I was open, a lot of the times I couldn’t knock them down.”
Jenkins had a similar performance nearly two weeks ago against Indiana State, scoring a season-low 11 points. Even so, he still leads the team and the SEC with 20.6 points a game.
Jeffery Taylor, however, is arguably the Commodores’ most dynamic player right now. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior forward gives opposing teams the most fits with his athletic ability, averaging 17.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.
He also wreaks havoc on defense, leading the team with 21 steals. He plans to help stymie a Golden Eagle offense that leads the Big East Conference and ranks eighth in the country with 84 points a game. Leading the way is guard Darius Johnson-Odom, who averages 17.9 points.
“He is definitely their main guy,” Taylor said. “A lot of their offense comes from him and [forward Jae] Crowder. I’d love to guard Johnson-Odom. It would be a nice little change.”
Marquette, a Sweet 16 team last year, had rattled off 10 straight wins before falling 67-59 at LSU on Dec. 19. Stallings and the Commodores could rip a page from the Tigers’ book as their SEC counterpart tightened up on defense. LSU fell behind 13-0 but outrebounded the Golden Eagles and held them to 36.2 percent shooting.
“LSU got after them,” Stallings said. “I was trying to watch Marquette but it was hard not to focus on just how much better LSU looked. ... It was very impressive. But Marquette is one of the best teams in the country, in my opinion. They can hurt you inside. They can hurt you outside. They’re great at driving the ball. They are very, very athletic. They are very tough-minded like their coach [Buzz Williams] is. So this is a very tall, very difficult challenge for our team — for any team.
“I think any team that goes into Marquette this year will have to play their best game to have a chance to win. We’re no different.”
• Center Festus Ezeli will play against Marquette but won’t start, Stallings said before practice on Wednesday. Ezeli, a 6-foot-11 senior, has missed the last two games due to lingering knee injuries. He has played in just two contests this season — against Davidson and Indiana State — earlier this month after spraining ligaments in his right knee in October.
His left knee, which underwent surgery in the spring, has also begun to bother him. He believes that pain has stemmed from overcompensating because of his right knee injury.
“I’m about 75 percent but feeling good about it,” said Ezeli, who has made just one start. “It has been pretty frustrating ... but I feel like it is going to be all worth it in the end.”
• Forward Steve Tchiengang will start in Ezeli’s place. Tchiengang, a 6-foot-9 senior forward, will make his 11th start. He missed one game — against Monmouth on Nov. 25 — due to a concussion, which Stallings says is finally behind him. He did miss practice time this week, though, because of illness.