Don’t write off Vanderbilt just yet, warns former Commodores forward Andre Walker.
Two November losses on their home court have all but wiped away the hype surrounding a No. 7 preseason ranking. A stunner to Cleveland State two weeks ago and an 82-70 overtime loss to Walker and No. 11 Xavier on Monday have exposed perimeter defense woes, ball security issues, depth concerns and rebounding problems for Vanderbilt (5-2), which was ranked 20th prior to the latest defeat. Not to mention the Commodores are still failing to hold onto double-digit leads, which cost them multiple victories last year and resurfaced against the Musketeers (5-0) when they blew a 10-point second-half advantage.
Yet, Walker, who had one remaining year of eligibility when he graduated in May, believes Vanderbilt possesses the weapons to make a run in the Southeastern Conference and in March.
“They have a lot of experience on their team, a lot of high-powered offense. They play good defense. They’re big and they’re missing Fes,” Walker said referring to Festus Ezeli, who is out with a sprained right knee and has yet to play a game this season. “I feel, when they get Fes back, there is not too many people that will be able to stop them.”
The absence of the 6-foot-11 Ezeli was apparent against Xavier, as the Commodores got beat 55-33 on the boards and allowed numerous second and third chances. The Musketeers had 25 offensive rebounds.
Vanderbilt, which plays at No. 6 Louisville on Friday, also could have used the 6-foot-8 Walker, who grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds, nine by halftime. Having played his last game with the Commodores just eight months ago, the Xavier graduate student showed why he can be extremely valuable.
He played 40 of the game's 45 minutes and displayed his court presence. At times, he yelled commands and reminded his team to stay poised as they appeared headed for victory in overtime. In addition to his scrappiness around the rim and good passing, he scored six points and brought the ball up the floor on a couple occasions.
Most important, though, he was solid defensively. He played against 6-foot-8 Lance Goulbourne early and stifled shooting guard John Jenkins late. After affecting Jenkins’ missed jumper near the end of regulation, Walker grabbed the rebound and pushed it up to Mark Lyons, who made a driving jumper in the lane to tie the game with 6.5 seconds left and force overtime.
“Obviously, a huge impact,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “His steadiness on the floor, his ability to be able to guard a big guy like [6-foot-9 Steve] Tchiengang and then at the same time be able to guard [6-foot-3 Brad] Tinsley. He is just very, very versatile. I couldn’t be happier for him. He has been through a lot. ... It had to be really awkward and surreal for him to come [back]. It is not like he had a year of residence where now there is a couple of classes removed and he had freshmen or sophomores he doesn’t know. He played with these guys five months ago.”
Walker, a native of Flossmoor, Ill., chose to enroll in Xavier to pursue a master’s degree in sports administration. His four years with the Commodores were plagued by injuries and illness — he tore his ACL in 2008-09 and played in just 15 games due to mononucleosis and a severe ankle sprain.
Still, he speaks fondly of his time at Vanderbilt and said it was good to visit with former teammates on Sunday.
Coming to Memorial Gymnasium as an opponent, however, was odd.
“It felt very familiar but also unfamiliar at the same time, using different exits and entrances and still seeing my face up on the little team picture,” Walker said. “It was just weird going against guys that I have put so much work in for the past three, four years.”
Added Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor: “It was a little weird to see him wearing a different color uniform. We were together for about three-plus years so it was a weird experience.”
Walker has started four games, and is averaging five points and six rebounds for Xavier, which appears loaded enough to win its sixth straight Atlantic-10 Conference regular-season championship. With a dynamic backcourt and big post presence, the Musketeers could reach its third Sweet 16 in four years.
Walker wouldn’t be surprised if Vanderbilt made a similar run. He’s just glad his new team took care of the Commodores while it is still early.
“It is a relief because I know the kind of things I would hear if I would have lost,” Walker said. “Somebody had to lose, but I needed this one really badly.”