Kentucky-Vandy strategy hinges on Davis-Ezeli matchup

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2012 

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    Kentucky at Vanderbilt

    When: 9 p.m. Saturday | TV: ESPN


    Consistency key: Vanderbilt players say they need to step up their game to beat Kentucky. Page B4

    Next Cats: UK signees Goodwin, Poythress make McDonald's All-America roster. Page B4

    Davis poster: UK is upset fans are trying to profit from free Anthony Davis posters. Page A3

NASHVILLE — Each in his own way, big men Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Festus Ezeli of Vanderbilt give Saturday's game a distinctive quality.

Davis, who is on the way to rewriting UK and Southeastern Conference records for blocks, has become a full-blown phenomenon.

"I don't know that I've ever seen anything like him," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said Thursday. "... Davis changes the game around the goal. He makes you think about (chuckles) other options because trying to take it in front of him is not a very intelligent option most of the time."

Ezeli, who grew up in Benin City, Nigeria, did not play basketball until age 15. Or one year after he graduated from high school, had already become fluent in English and decided to someday attend medical school.

Ezeli (pronounced e-ZEE-lee) loomed large in the two Kentucky-Vanderbilt games last season. In the first, teammate John Jenkins made six three-pointers and scored 32 points. In all, Vandy made 11 three-pointers in an 81-77 victory.

For the rematch, UK Coach John Calipari tightened the perimeter defense and took his chances that Ezeli could not beat the Cats from the low post.

"After (Jenkins) got 32 the first time, we kind of anticipated they might try to guard him in some way different," Stallings said facetiously.

Ezeli came close to beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena. He scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while Jenkins managed Vandy's only two three-point baskets. But when Ezeli couldn't handle a feed into the post in the final seconds, UK escaped with a 68-66 victory.

"I remember that," Ezeli said of the double-double in Rupp Arena. Then turning his attention to Saturday's game against Davis, he added, "It's going to be a different game because (Josh) Harrellson was more of a banger. And I think Anthony Davis is a shot blocker."

Ezeli has overcome injuries to both knees and a suspension for receiving improper benefits in a turbulent senior season.

When asked about the priority UK placed on limiting Vandy's three-point shooting, Stallings predicted that UK would play "tight" on the Commodores' top perimeter threats: Jeffery Taylor and Jenkins.

The Vandy coach noted how he and his staff have examined Kentucky's varying tactics in post defense.

"Whatever they do, we've seen it," he said. "Just like they've already seen what we do. At this stage, there aren't any surprises. Knowing what to expect is not an issue. It's being able to be effective against them. That's the difficult part."

Davis, who leads the nation in blocks, had captured Vandy's attention.

"He blocks everything," Jenkins said. "We've all seen that. We watched the games they played. You have to shoot floaters or just don't drive all the way in there."

Stallings chuckled as he spoke of Davis and what he termed Kentucky's "very, very, very underrated" defense.

"I don't expect to see a lot of layups because Kentucky doesn't give up a lot of layups," he said.

No layups at one end leads to many layups and dunks at the other.

"They have 'spurt-ability,' if you will, because of their ability to make stops," Stallings said of the Cats. "You can't have runs without getting stops. ...

"They look like a track team after (Davis) blocks a shot. It's the fastest thing you'll ever see going from defense to offense."

To combat Davis, opponents have tried to be physical. Stallings was dubious. "I'd like to see the film," he said.

Ezeli, who noted Davis' "amazing" timing, is listed as an inch taller and 35 pounds heavier than the UK freshman.

When asked about the tactic of being physical with Davis, Ezeli said, "Yeah, but he's also very long. That's something I'll have to feel throughout the game."

Ezeli, who also considered UConn, Boston College and Harvard, came to Vandy in the fall of 2007 as a basketball novice. He had to learn the five positions and the rules (he did not know about the three-second violation).

Slowly but surely, Vanderbilt turned Ezeli from project to player.

One of the lessons Ezeli had to learn was how to play in front of a crowd. He suffered from stage fright.

When asked if college basketball's big-time atmosphere frightened Ezeli, Stallings noted the game against No. 1 Kentucky and the presence of ESPN GameDay.

"If it does, it'll show up on Saturday," the Vandy coach said. "I hope not."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog:

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