Marquette to close out non-conference schedule with Vanderbilt

After a three-day vacation and a week in between games, the Marquette Golden Eagles will close out their non-conference schedule tomorrow night when they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Players and coaches departed from Milwaukee last Friday to return home for the Christmas holiday, before returning to campus Monday afternoon.

Head coach Buzz Williams said the team had a successful mini-practice Monday (guards work together, bigs work together, team lift for 30 minutes, team practice for 30 minutes), which was the result of having time off over the weekend.

“I think it’s really refreshing for our staff, for our players,” Williams said. “We’ve never had a bad practice after Christmas. And I think that speaks to what we do prior to Christmas and I think it speaks volumes about the opportunity to be away for a couple of days.”

The break came at the perfect time for Williams’ group, who had played six games in four different states in 19 days with an undermanned roster.

Marquette won five of its six games during the stretch but is still continuing to adapt to life without center Chris Otule, who has not played since Dec. 3 due to a knee injury.

Otule’s status still is unknown, but Williams said his center is inching closer to running in practice.

“If he’s able to get on the court, it’d be towards the end of the week,” Williams said. “He’s continued to improve relative to his flexibility, his strength is gaining, but there’s only so much you can do to hurry up and get stronger.”

Vanderbilt’s big three now just two

Marquette may have caught a break for its game Thursday, as Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli is also dealing with a knee injury.

The 6-foot-11 senior was a first team All-SEC preseason selection but has missed 10 of the Commodores’ first 12 games due a sprained PCL and MCL in his right knee.

He saw action Dec. 7 against Davidson, playing 21 minutes and scoring 15 points, but has missed the team’s last two games as he progressively works back from the injury. He is a game-time decision for Thursday night.

Lucky for head coach Kevin Stallings, however, Ezeli isn’t Vanderbilt’s only talented big man.

Senior forward Jeffrey Taylor has taken his game to another level in his final year, averaging 17.9 points and 5.8 rebounds. The Commodores’ version of Jae Crowder does a little bit of everything, averaging 1.4 3-pointers made, 1.8 steals, and 2.2 assists.

Taylor’s name would be better recognized nationally if he wasn’t playing in the same lineup as one of best scorers in college basketball, senior John Jenkins.

Jenkins is fourth in the nation with 3.8 3-pointers made per game and is the SEC’s leading scorer at 20.6 points per game. The 6-foot-4 guard can get to the rim and finishes well in traffic and can create his own shot on the perimeter, shaking defenders on step backs and pump fakes before draining a shot from deep.

That combination has earned Jenkins high praise from many, including Buzz Williams, who at preseason media day referenced the Vanderbilt guard when asking what it would take for Williams’ own senior, Darius Johnson-Odom, to take his game to the next level defensively.

Taylor’s and Jenkins’ ability to score from anywhere on the court have led the Commodores to an average of 76.8 points per game, all without a healthy Ezeli (the team’s third leading scorer from a year ago).

Non-conference struggles for the Commodores

For as good as Jenkins and Taylor have been, however, the Commodores have struggled through their non-conference schedule without Ezeli.

Ranked No. 7 to begin the season, Vanderbilt has suffered losses  to Cleveland State, Xavier, at Louisville and Indiana State and has dropped entirely out of the rankings.

Without Ezeli, the Commodores have struggled in field goal percentage defense. Opponents are shooting 44.6 percent against Vanderbilt, which ranks 227th in the nation.

More importantly, ball control has been a major area of concern. The Commodores are averaging 14.5 turnovers  per game and have turned it over 69 times in four losses (17.2).

Marquette ready for a shootout?

In part because of Ezeli’s injury, Vanderbilt has struggled in non-conference play. But Buzz Williams and Marquette will not be overlooking the Commodores prior to the Big East opener on New Year’s Day against Villanova.

“I think they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Williams said. “I think Kevin Stallings is one of the most unheralded head coaches in all of Division I. I think the job he’s done there of assembling that roster and the success they’ve had is remarkable. Extremely well coached, very sound in what they do on both ends of the floor.”

The Commodores’ 54.3 effective field goal percentage is 26th best in the country and they have eclipsed 86 points in five games this season.

After scoring 55 points in a home loss to Indiana State, the Commodores have righted the ship with 99 and 88 points in wins over Longwood and Lafayette, respectively.

On the other hand, Marquette will enter tomorrow’s contest averaging just 61.5 points per game over its last two games. While both those contests (at LSU, vs. Milwaukee) were two of the slowest-paced games Marquette has played in this year, the Golden Eagles shot a combined 37.7 percent and assisted on just 19 of 43 field goals (44.1 percent), well below their season average of 63.9 percent.

Marquette has been excellent in effective field goal percentage defense this season (43.1 percent, 25th in nation) and not allowing Jenkins or Taylor to get in a rhythm would be crucial. The Commodores are averaging 60.8 points in their four losses, which includes two overtime periods.

Vanderbilt Key Players

PG: Brad Tinsley

Tinsley has struggled at times this year dishing the ball, but it shows when he does. His drive-and-kick ability has proved beneficial for Jenkins and Taylor on the outside, so Derrick Wilson’s defense could prove crucial to shutting down the Vanderbilt offense. Cadougan is smaller than the 6-foot-3 Tinsley but is coming off a career-high 15-point performance against Milwaukee and has been much more aggressive shooting the ball lately (21 shots in his past two games).

SG: John Jenkins

Vanderbilt’s record may not show it, but Jenkins has done a phenomenal job stepping up in Ezeli’s absence as he tries to keep the Commodores afloat. He made just 2-of-15 3-pointers in last year’s contest against Marquette, but defending Jenkins is more containing him rather than stopping him. Good “before the catch” defense from Darius Johnson-Odom and Todd Mayo won’t allow Jenkins to catch-and-shoot, and making him work for his baskets is important.

SF: Jeffrey Taylor

Vanderbilt goes with a traditional two-guard, two-forward, center lineup, so it will be interesting to see whether Stallings caves and goes small or Williams goes big. As it stands, Crowder or Jamil Wilson will have the task of stopping the versatile Taylor. He stays out of foul trouble, draws contact and has active hands inside. Jenkins is Vanderbilt’s best player, but Taylor may be the Commodores’ most important.

PF: Lance Goulborne

Goulbourne has been a pleasant surprise for Vanderbilt this year, holding down the inside without Ezeli. He has averaged 15 points and seven rebounds over the past two games and has been counted on to rebound in Ezeli’s absence. His 22.1 defensive rebounding percentage is one of the best in the nation and he has range extended to the three-point line on offense. He could be an x-factor tomorrow.

PF: Steve Tchiengang

Vanderbilt’s tallest big has been an active defender and will prove to be a tough task for Davante Gardner and Jae Crowder inside.

C: Festus Ezeli

If he plays, Davante Gardner and Jae Crowder will have their hands full. Ezeli has looked good in two games and would have had 13 days off if he plays against Marquette. He’s capable of scoring inside and is one of the best shot blockers in the SEC. If he can give Vanderbilt even 15 good minutes, it would be a major plus on both ends. Marquette has struggled mightily inside since Otule went down.

Bench: Freshman point guard Kedren Johnson and sophomore forward Rod Odom and freshman guard Dai-Jon Parker round out the Commodores’ rotation.

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