KNOXVILLE - Replacing an All-Southeastern Conference center usually doesn't make a basketball team better, but in Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl's eyes, Vanderbilt proves otherwise.
"I think this is one of the best teams I've seen Vanderbilt have," Pearl said after practice Thursday as the Volunteers prepared for Saturday's noon game against the Commodores.
Last season Vanderbilt won 12 league games behind guard Jermaine Beal and center A.J. Ogilvy, two All-SEC players. Ogilvy averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game, but Festus Ezeli - a 6-foot-11, 255-pound junior from Nigeria -- has brought Vanderbilt a different dimension inside this year.
"I don't think they miss Ogilvy. I don't think they miss him at all," Pearl said. "I think they're better defensively without him, and Ezeli has improved so much that he gives them the best of both worlds."
After averaging less than four points per game through two seasons as Ogilvy's backup, the wide-bodied Ezeli is having a breakout season with 13 points on 61 percent shooting, seven rebounds and two blocked shots a game.
"His reputation, he's pretty physical," UT center John Fields said. "You've just got to match his intensity - can't come out there soft or he's going to take advantage of you. Play as hard as him and keep his touches limited on the offensive end."
"Ezeli has become a very effective scorer on the inside," Pearl said. "They do a great job posting him up; they do a great job with him sealing the help [defender]. It's going to take two or three 5 men against Vanderbilt. Our guys have got to be ready to step up physically."
Fields, who's averaging 1.4 blocks per game, scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 21 minutes of his first start against Florida on Tuesday. Fields called defense his "calling card," but Pearl said Fields needs more chances on offense.
"I think we've got to go into him more," Pearl said. "If he scores, he scores at a good percentage, and if he misses it, he goes and gets his own [miss]."
Bone to pick
There's no lack of familiarity in rivalry between UT and Vanderbilt, and there's no UT player more familiar with the Commodores than Nashville native and reserve guard Josh Bone.
"I knew Coach [Kevin] Stallings real well growing up in high school," said Bone, a former star at Brentwood Academy. "He recruited me a little bit [but] didn't offer me a scholarship, so I guess I play with a chip on my shoulder playing him. Vanderbilt was always a school I would have liked to go to, but I'm here at Tennessee and I love Tennessee."
Bone spent two years at Southern Illinois before transferring to UT as a walk-on in 2008. His defensive abilities earned him a scholarship this past summer, but a fractured wrist forced him to miss the first 11 games of this season.
"I know a couple of [Vanderbilt's] players," Bone said. "I see a lot of them just around [Nashville]. We play in the summertime, train with some of the same people.
"It should be fun."