Cleveland St.-Vanderbilt Preview
At least for one game, Vanderbilt showed it can still perform at a high level without starting center Festus Ezeli.
Cleveland State faces an entire season without reigning Horizon League player of the year Norris Cole.
The seventh-ranked Commodores look to spoil the Vikings' season opener Sunday at Memorial Gym in their first regional game of the Legends Classic.
Ezeli is sidelined up to two months with sprained right knee ligaments after already facing a six-game NCAA suspension for accepting a meal and a hotel room from an alumnus. He was expected to be an integral part of the team after averaging 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds last season, but Vanderbilt overcame his absence Friday to post a 78-64 season-opening victory over Oregon.
The Commodores didn't get major production from the players being relied upon to make up for Ezeli's absence. His replacement in the starting lineup, senior Steve Tchiengang, finished with four points and three rebounds in his second start since 2008-09. Redshirt freshman Josh Henderson had four points and four boards, but the team held a 41-39 rebounding edge and scored 24 points off 20 Ducks turnovers.
"We can't sit around and lament what it means not to have Festus," said coach Kevin Stallings, who had all five starters return for the first time in 12 seasons. "We have to play better, and we have to play without him and make up for that. And we did. We played hard."
Jeffrey Taylor had 21 points, 11 rebounds and a career-best five steals, while fellow junior John Jenkins scored 16 of his game-high 24 in the second half.
Jenkins - the SEC leader last season with 19.5 points per game - missed his first four field-goal attempts but finished 7 of 16 from 3-point range.
"As soon as we started moving the ball and moving around we got used to it and shots started falling," he said.
Jenkins is 12 points shy of 1,000.
So is Vikings senior guard Jeremy Montgomery.
Cleveland State is counting on big years from him and preseason all-conference pick Trey Harmon, who combined to average 24.8 points last season, with Cole having graduated. Cole was a first-round NBA draft pick after leading the Vikings with 21.7 points and 5.3 assists per game as the team finished 27-9 and reached the NIT.
If coach Gary Waters' team is going to make a run at a second consecutive regular-season Horizon League title, frontcourt experience could be a major factor.
Senior center Aaron Pogue (8.2 points, 6.1 boards) returns as does junior forward Tim Kamczyc (5.9 points, 3.7 rebounds). Senior forward D'Aundray Brown is back after missing all of last season with a finger injury, and he had 10 points in Wednesday's 88-58 exhibition victory over John Carroll.
Pogue added 18 points and 14 rebounds, while freshman Anton Grady, the nephew of NBA guard Earl Boykins, scored 10 with 11 boards.
"Today was a day where we got a chance to see our younger guys play and our veterans take another step forward," Waters told the school's official website. "... now we'll go back to the drawing board and prepare for Vanderbilt."
The Vikings have dropped five straight to ranked opponents since an 84-69 victory over then-No. 12 Wake Forest in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament.
In the teams' only previous meeting, Vanderbilt won 93-64 on Dec. 28, 1994.
The Commodores host Bucknell on Tuesday in the next round of the Legends Classic before heading to East Rutherford, N.J., next Saturday for a semifinal matchup versus North Carolina State.