NASHVILLE — Last summer, when Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis agreed to play a rare January non-conference game, neither coach had an idea how significant the matchup would turn out to be.
Much was at stake for both sides as they took the floor on Saturday afternoon.
For the Blue Raiders (20-3), it was another chance to make an impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee and bulk up a resume that includes victories over UCLA and Ole Miss and an 8-2 road record.
For the Commodores, it was an opportunity to hold serve at Memorial Gym against a good mid-major team — something they hadn’t done this against Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State — keep playing through what would have been a weekend off in the Southeastern Conference and continue the momentum that had seen them win nine of their previous 10 games.
The difference in those earlier home losses and Vanderbilt’s 84-77 victory over MTSU wasn’t hard to spot. Fifth-year senior Festus Ezeli, who missed the Cleveland State and Xavier games with a knee injury and wasn’t 100 percent for Indiana State, delivered his best offensive game since last season, scoring 21 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and 11-of-13 from the free-throw line.
John Jenkins (26 points) and Jeffrey Taylor (17), turned in their usual performances for Vanderbilt (16-5), but Stallings thought Ezeli’s return to form was the key to the win.
"We talked about getting the ball inside for two days of practice,” Stallings said. “We thought we had an advantage there, and we thought they would do exactly what they did and press up on us, and Festus delivered.
“No disrespect to anyone else, but he was the best player on the floor today."
"I wish we'd have [played] when [Ezeli] was hurt,” Davis said. "When he plays like that, it just gives them such a weapon. Now you have to double him, because they've got so many offensive players around him. They did a great job, spread the floor and got it to the right spots so he could score."
Just three days earlier, after a win over Tennessee, Ezeli talked about how his timing on the offensive end of the floor had been short-circuited by the injury and the weeks he spent rehabbing. Before Ezeli was hurt, NBA scouts flocked to Vanderbilt’s preseason practices and marveled at how the big man’s offensive skills had reached another level.
“Offensively, I had been playing the best I’ve ever played in my career [before the injury],” Ezeli said. “When I got back, it was like everything was off. It was frustrating on a lot of levels. I felt like I was regressing.”
Ezeli stopped that regression against the Blue Raiders, who showed why they’ve already won 20 games. Middle is an imposing defensive team that plays a physical brand of halfcourt pressure defense, but Davis threw a curve at the Commodores by asking every player but post LaRon Dendy to switch on all ball screens. That was a significant move because of Vanderbilt's dependence on using screens to free its shooters.
It took a while for Vanderbilt to regroup — the Commodores trailed by as many as eight points in the first half and 75-74 with 3:30 to play in the second — but the solution was to spread the floor and send drivers into the lane, where they could find Ezeli, who either scored or got fouled. He made more free throws than he had in his previous five games — that stretch included a 2-of-9 effort against Alabama — by spending hours in the gym getting up shots.
“I shot free throws last night,” Ezeli said. “I had to text coach how many I’d made. I’d spent a lot of time in the gym, but I changed up my form a little bit, too.”
Ezeli’s task in that late-night session was to make 100 free throws, and it took him just 123 attempts to do it. That was a sign of good things to come.
With Ezeli on his game, the Commodores were finally able to overcome a good mid-major at home. But what of the Blue Raiders’ goal of padding their NCAA crendentials?
“They played really hard with great effort against us,” Stallings said. “If they play this hard all the time, they’ll be in the NCAA tournament. … Nobody’s going to like playing against them.”
“I sure hope we’re in the [NCAAs],” Davis said. “We’ve got a good team. I thought Vanderbilt had to really play to win.”