Vanderbilt has the reputation of an underachiever.
How could it not? Despite being favored in each of their past three tournament appearances, the Commodores haven't escaped the first round, losing to the likes of Siena, Murray State, and Richmond.
This year, too, they have underachieved to the tune of a 13-4 record after being ranked No. 7 in the preseason.
Home losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State are resume-killers, and overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville aren't as acceptable as they were one month ago. Both the Musketeers and Cardinals have cooled off tremendously since their torrid starts to 2011-12.
However, Festus Ezeli missed the first three losses, and while he played against Indiana State, he still was not 100 percent recovered from the knee surgery that sidelined him for the season's first month.
Ezeli's athletic defensive presence down low was the main reason Vanderbilt cracked the Top 10 in the preseason. Without him, the Commodores probably would have ranked closer to No. 15.
That's how valuable he is to Vanderbilt—if you haven't realized that already.
Since Ezeli returned as a regular to the Commodore rotation, Kevin Stallings' team has reeled off five straight victories. He hasn't quite played like the Festus Ezeli who averaged 13 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks a season ago, but it's not a coincidence that the Commodores are winning with him on the floor.
This is—almost, pending Ezeli returning to 100 percent—the preseason No. 7 team.
Yes, the Commodores have beaten up on three of the many woeful SEC teams—Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia—but they also picked up a much-needed victory at Marquette with Ezeli contributing eight points and seven rebounds.
This week, Vanderbilt came in at No. 26 in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls and No. 27 in the B/R Writers Rankings, but some of the teams ahead of the Commodores aren't any more deserving of cracking the Top 25.
Kansas State, which edged Vanderbilt for the No. 25 spot in the AP Top 25 and the B/R Writers Rankings, is one of those teams. While the Wildcats have beaten Alabama and Missouri—both at home—they played an easier non-conference schedule than the Commodores, according to Kenpom, and rank two spots lower in the RPI.
Kansas State nearly defeated Baylor but it followed its 75-73 loss to the Bears with a nine-point loss at Oklahoma.
Despite beating a then-ranked Florida State team that had struggled immensely until this weekend, Harvard also doesn't deserve a spot over Vanderbilt in the ESPN/USA Today Poll. The Crimson lost to Fordham and are No. 53 in the RPI.
Compare the Commodores to the Wildcats and the Crimson.
Vanderbilt is 13-4 and No. 30 in the RPI. Its hot streak is current.
Kansas State is 12-4 and No. 32 in the RPI, but the Wildcats have lost three of their last four.
Harvard is 15-2, but the Fordham loss is an indelible stain on its resume.
Although the Wildcats have played tougher competition recently and have a very similar record and RPI, the Commodores' early struggles without Ezeli should be taken with a grain of salt.
Would Xavier have made its late comeback to force overtime with Ezeli playing? Would Peyton Siva have been able to knife through the lane for his game-winning layup as easily with Ezeli looming under the hoop?
The Commodores are hot now, and the Wildcats are not. The Crimson lost at the wrong time—right before Ivy League play.
Vanderbilt should be ranked over those teams right now, but wins over Alabama and Mississippi State this week would cement the Commodores as a Top 25 squad.
If not, it's because they've become known as underachievers.
And that's not fair.