On Monday night, nestled within an otherwise so-so night of hoops, No. 11 Xavier got an impressive overtime win over No. 18 Vanderbilt on the Commodores' home floor. The result solidified what we already knew about Xavier: Tu Holloway is one of the best scoring guards in the country, Mark Lyons isn't far behind and the rest of the Musketeers -- Andre Walker, Kenny Frease, Travis Taylor and so on -- are chock-full of solid role players and big men who can rebound, defend and score.
For Vanderbilt, there's no shame in losing to this Xavier team, whether at home or on the road, especially without forward Festus Ezeli, out thanks to NCAA suspension and recovery from a sprained knee, in the lineup. As XU coach Chris Mack said in his postgame comments Monday night:
"Them being without (Festus) Ezeli helped us," Mack said of Vandy's senior center who's out with a sprained right knee. "He can be like a kid in a candy store if he's not in foul trouble."
Which is true. Vanderbilt's noticeable Ezeli-lessness (new word, just go with it) has undoubtedly been a factor in the Commodores' two losses this season (the other of which came in the season opener at home vs. Cleveland State). Without Ezeli, the Commodores become thoroughly mediocre on the glass, don't get to the free throw line as often, and fail to generate nearly as many high-percentage shots. Without Ezeli, Vanderbilt has to work harder for everything.
Still, Ezeli's absence can't explain away this team's other glaring flaw: Namely, the lack of a true point guard that can run the show -- and get stops -- in tight late-game situations.
Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley is a lot of things. An accurate shooter, for one. But as we saw last night, when opposing teams with athletic guards step up the defensive pressure, Tinsley struggles to get the Commodores into their offense. As Holloway and Lyons began to take over in the second half, erasing a 10-point deficit and scoring the final four points in regulation to force overtime, they began to pressure Tinsley before he reached half court. There is no relief for Tinsley: If he gives the ball up to John Jenkins (who is typically trying to run off a screen and isn't anywhere near the top of the key anyway), Jenkins can't play the catch-and-shoot game at which he excels. If he gives it up to Jeffrey Taylor, the Commodores' offense stalls. There were several possessions in the final minutes of Monday night's game in which Lance Goulbourne -- a putative power forward (who had an excellent game in the loss) -- was handling the ball at the top of the key while Xavier denied every potential return pass to Tinsley, Jenkins and Taylor.
Meanwhile, none of the Vanderbilt guards had an answer for Holloway, who was inefficient for much of the night but totally unstoppable when it mattered most.
Without question, the Commodores are a better team with Ezeli on the floor. But their strengths and weaknesses in the backcourt appear to be much the same as last year: Vanderbilt shoots the ball very well, doesn't pressure the defensive perimeter and turns the ball over just a bit too frequently for comfort. With Ezeli in the lineup, the Dores would surely get more easy buckets and free throws. But would they be all that much different? Doubtful. For a team that entered this season with an optimistic top-10 ranking, that's hardly an encouraging sign.