By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- Vanderbilt insists its club is no different than the one some pegged as a potential SEC favorite and dark horse for the Final Four.
The results to date suggest otherwise for the 25th-ranked Commodores, whose stay in the AP Top 25 figures to be over before Monday night's game against Longwood.
Returning all five starters and its top seven players from a 23-win team that was upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament, coach Kevin Stallings' team was ranked seventh in the preseason poll and expected to battle Kentucky and Florida for the conference title.
Early on, however, the Commodores (6-4) have lacked cohesion to make the team better than the sum of its talented parts. They lost for the third time at home this season Saturday, a 61-55 defeat to Indiana State in which they were outscored 16-2 in the final 6:31.
"Just untimely for us to go cold in stretches," said Jeffery Taylor, who scored 21 points. "I can't really put my finger on it. I felt this was a game we should've won. It's really frustrating right now."
One of the contributing factors may be the lack of playing time center Festus Ezeli has gotten to this point. The 6-foot-11 senior averaged 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds last season, but after a knee injury and an NCAA-imposed suspension for receiving extra benefits, he has totaled 19 points and 10 rebounds in 43 minutes over Vanderbilt's last two games.
With 155 blocks, Ezeli is three shy of passing Will Perdue as the school's all-time leader.
Guard John Jenkins, the team's leading scorer at 20.1 points per game, was held to a season-low 11 on 3-of-10 shooting Saturday. A 43.2 percent shooter from 3-point range for his career, Jenkins is 3 for 11 from beyond the arc in his last two contests.
"We have the talent, we have the experience," senior guard Brad Tinsley said. "We've got the exact same team last year when we finished a lot of games. It's just a mentality type of thing that whoever is on the court just has to have mental toughness."
The Commodores should be able to find enough toughness against Longwood (4-6), which has been outscored by an average of 22.3 points in losing its three road games. The Lancers, though, are coming off their best effort of the season, a 110-89 victory over VMI last Monday in which they hit a school-record 20 3-pointers.
Tristan Carey hit six of them and finished with a career-high 30 points, while Martiz Washington also made six 3-pointers and added 20 points. Leading scorer Antwan Carter and Jan van der Kooij each had a double-double for Longwood, which has lost all six of its games against ranked opponents by an average of 32.5 points since making the jump to Division I in the 2004-05 season.
The undersized Lancers are allowing opponents to shoot 48.7 percent, including 42.9 from 3-point range, and they've given up 82.6 points per game.
Updated December 18, 2011