NASHVILLE — A roster stocked with experience is why the Commodores have such high expectations this season. Now all those upperclassmen are giving Coach Kevin Stallings a big assist on and off the court.
Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are holding their younger teammates accountable, making them work harder. The Commodores also had a team meeting after a 61-55 loss to Indiana State on Dec. 17 on their own floor dropped them to 6-4 and out of the Top 25 rankings for the second time this season.
Since then, the Commodores have won seven straight, and they go into Thursday night's game at Alabama (13-4, 2-1) as one of the Southeastern Conference's two undefeated teams with No. 2 Kentucky in league play. Taylor credits the maturity level on a team with six seniors and two juniors helping them be essentially coaches on the court in helping the younger players.
"It's definitely helping us this year just in close games or in loud environments," Taylor said.
Ezeli said the message of needing to work hard every day and stay consistent is easier to hear from a fellow player.
"We're looking out for each other," Ezeli said. "So when a teammate says it to you, I guess it's a better way of saying it, a better way of doing it."
To Stallings, he sees his team taking ownership with Vanderbilt (13-4) off to a 3-0 start in SEC play for only the second time in his 13 seasons.
"It gives the coaches the opportunity to focus more on execution and the game plan and the strategical things that need to be done as opposed to having to ask guys to play hard or practice hard ... or perform the way we expect them to perform," Stallings said. "I think that the leadership of our team has really picked up, and it's enabled them to create a higher level of accountability than even we can create."
In this winning streak, Vanderbilt is holding opponents to 58 points a game and 39.1 percent shooting from the floor. Over the past five wins, the Commodores are beating teams by an average of 15 points, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and grabbing an average of 5.6 more rebounds per game.
In league play, the Commodores are leading the SEC in scoring defense, allowing a mere 52.7 points per game. They also are outscoring SEC opponents by 17 points a game so far while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor. Jenkins also is leading the SEC in scoring, averaging 19.8 points, while Taylor is the league's third-best scorer (16.9).
Stallings credits Ezeli's return from a sprained right knee that kept the 6-foot-11 center out 10 games with helping as well. Ezeli now has played four straight games after working through the knee injury.
"You have an opportunity to get better and a lot better defensively when your premier defensive player comes back into the mix," Stallings said. "We're missing our best shot blocker and most intimidating presence near the goal for the first nine or 10 games this season. When he comes back, it gives you a chance to get better and we've been able to play better because of his presence."
Alabama Coach Anthony Grant sees Ezeli as a big part of what Vanderbilt does.
"Ezeli gives them a presence down low both offensively and defensively that most teams across the country would want. So I'm certainly very impressed with their team," Grant said.
All that experience is why Vanderbilt started the season ranked seventh nationally, its highest pre-season rank since 1965. Home losses to Cleveland State, then-No. 12 Xavier and Indiana State along with an overtime loss at then-No. 6 Louisville coincided with Ezeli being out. With the upperclassmen speaking out, the Commodores certainly have settled down. Freshman Dai-Jon Parker said they were rushing too much early in the season and not preparing very well.
"We're not taking anything for granted right now," Parker said.
That will be key if the Commodores want to finish this season with a strong run in the NCAA Tournament that has been the top goal, and Stallings sees an added bonus that they hopefully won't be as tired of listening to him.
"The less they have to hear from me and the more they hear from each other, that'll make it easier on me at the end when I'm trying to get them to do what I need them to do," Stallings said.