By Jon Rothstein
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Kevin Stallings isn’t always an optimist.

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Ask him about a future opponent and he’ll tell you his concerns.

Praise one of his current players and he’ll immediately point out their flaws and what they need to improve on.

But Stallings admits that even after some surprising early season defeats, he likes the direction his Vanderbilt team headed after winning seven games in a row and eight of nine since the Commodores got starting center Festus Ezeli back from an early season knee injury.

“I like our team,” said Stallings, whose team plays at Alabama tonight. “I think our difficult non-conference schedule has made us better and obviously, we’re a different team with Festus back.”

The addition of Ezeli, who still hasn’t hit his stride in the low post has made Vanderbilt considerably better defensively and has also made their perimeter more potent on offense.

“With him back, we’re a better basketball team as soon as we get off the bus,” Stallings said of Ezeli.

The trio of Ezeli, junior shooting guard John Jenkins, and senior small forward Jeffery Taylor all bypassed entering last June’s NBA Draft with the hopes of putting together a memorable season this year in Nashville. Despite some early setbacks, it seems very plausible for that happen and a big reason why is the maturation of Taylor.

His own hardest critic, the 6-foot-7 Taylor has finally learned to play through every whistle like it’s his last and is focusing on the next play rather than the previous one.

“I told Jeff before the season that good isn’t the enemy of great,” Stallings said of Taylor. “He’s really embraced that and he’s having a terrific year. He’s playing as well as anyone in the country at his position.”

With Taylor emerging and fellow senior starters Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne having the best seasons of their careers, it’s not unthinkable to think that Vanderbilt will continue to get progressively better as the season progresses as long as they get capable play off the bench from Steve Tchiengang, Rod Odom, and burgeoning freshman guard Dai-Jon Parker.

“I know I’m not going to be able to coach these guys for that much longer,” Stallings said. “I plan on enjoying every minute of it.”

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– Former St. John’s guard Nurideen Lindsey’s decision to transfer to Rider on Wednesday didn’t come as a surprise to those close to his camp. A Philadelphia native, Lindsey never liked the idea of leaving the Northeast even after he announced he’d attend Arkansas last week. After being unable to return to his home city at a place like La Salle, Rider turned out to be the next best fit. The Broncs play a wide open style that should allow Lindsey to showcase his individual skills and Tommy Dempsey is one of the nation’s most underrated offensive coaches.

– If they get the right draw, UNLV is a team that could win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. The Runnin Rebels are a nightmare for conventional teams to match up because of their ability to make shots from deep in pick and pop situations. Dave Rice might only be in his first year as a head coach but he’s got a tremendous chance to take this team a long ways in the postseason.

– Pac-12 favorite Cal suffered a massive blow on Wednesday when starting power forward Richard Solomon was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season due to academics. The Bears coaching staff had privately been concerned with the team’s depth the past few weeks and the loss of Solomon will only add to those concerns. Just another wrinkle in what has been a wild year in the PAC-12.

– Just who is the nation’s best point guard? One can really make a case for Iona’ Scott Machado. With Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor failing to live up to preseason expectations and North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall struggling to take care of the ball in last weekend’s loss at Florida State, Machado is looking more and more like he has a legitimate case for the title of the nation’s best floor general.

– Don’t be surprised if Georgetown freshman forward Greg Whittington makes a monster impact in the second half of the Big East schedule. The 6-foot-8 Whittington was the best high school player in DC last season and has the type of length that can make him a factor on both sides of the floor.

– A big reason why Rutgers has surprised people with an 11-8 start is the development of freshman power forward Derrick Randall. While he seemed unlikely to contribute in the preseason, Randall has embraced his role and made himself into a capable screener and low post defender. The lefty has also allowed Mike Rice to slowly bring freshman power forward Kadeem Jack back at a slower pace after he suffered a foot injury.

– A note to the public — check out Roselle Catholic junior forward Tyler Roberson. The 6-foot-8 Roberson has an unbelievable feel and is already an incredibly athlete with solid ball skills. Kansas State has already offered.

– Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin deserves to be Big East Coach of the Year if the Bearcats continue their roll and make the NCAA Tournament. Since their ugly brawl with Xavier, Cincinnati has won 10 of their last 11 including last night’s 70-67 win at UCONN. It doesn’t get any easier for the Bearcats, who travel to West Virginia on Saturday before returning home Monday to host top ranked Syracuse.

– Florida sophomore forward Will Yeguete is making it awfully hard for Gators coach Billy Donovan to take him off the floor. When the 6-foot-7 Yeguete plays over 20 minutes, he averages 6.1 rebounds per contest. The Florida staff has been splitting time at power forward between he and skilled big man Erik Murphy depending on the opponent.

– Major kudos has to go out to Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton for changing his lineup after the Seminoles struggled offensively to start the season. Rather than play three bigs at a time, Hamilton is now starting three guards in Luke Loucks, Michael Snaer, and Deividas Dulkys while bringing Ian Miller off the bench to give his team some much needed pop. While they can still take care of the ball better than they have, Florida State is a team no is going to want to see as the season progresses. The Seminoles are at Duke on Saturday.

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