published Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Wiedmer: Vanderbilt’s Ezeli has come so far so fast

ATLANTA — First, Festus Ezeli threw down an ally-oop dunk. Then he swished a short jumper. Finally, Vanderbilt’s final practice prior to tonight’s SEC Tournament opener against LSU almost completed inside the Georgia Dome, he swished four straight free throws, two at a time.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” said Vanderbilt assistant basketball coach King Rice as the Commodores’ Nigerian Nightmare canned a turnaround jumper. “It’s just amazing how quickly all this has happened.”

You want quick? The first time Rice laid eyes on Ezeli in a summer AAU tournament in 2007, the then 17-year-old post player knew so little about basketball that whenever his coach pulled him from the floor for fouls or fatigue, Ezeli would wander off to the bathroom, the water fountain or just take a quick stroll outside.

“He’d be gone for three or four minutes at a time,” said Rice. “Festus just didn’t know any better.”

But at least he was finally playing. When he first came to the States at the age of 14 to live with an uncle in California, Ezeli was AAU basketball’s tallest videographer.

“I didn’t know anything about basketball,” said Ezeli, whose first summer league basket actually went in the other team’s goal. “I only knew about soccer.”

Rice even likes to remind his second-team All-SEC performer that the coach’s 10-year-old son Alexander and Ezeli, “have played basketball for roughly the same amount of time. That’s how new he is to the sport.”

Yet just four years after first picking up the game, “Festus works on his free throws,” said Rice of what the 6-11, 255-pound redshirt junior now does during VU’s water breaks.

“He’s on the foul line before practice, after practice, by himself late at night. He’s constantly working to get better.”

The work has paid off for both Ezeli and the Commodores. After hitting just 37 percent of his free throws last season, he’s hitting 66 percent this year, and 73 percent since a 10 for 12 performance against Ole Miss on Jan. 19.

The improved marksmanship has helped him average 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and nearly three blocks a game in just over 23 minutes of action nightly. Partly because of that, Vanderbilt is 21-9 overall, 9-7 in the SEC and comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field according to most experts.

Or as Stallings noted, “Fortunately, these guys have done a good enough job over the course of the entire season that we’re not here sweating out our NCAA berth.”

What some Commodores fans may be sweating are Vandy’s three losses in its last four games. Counting last year’s NCAA tourney loss to Murray State in the opening round, those ‘Dores also lost three of their final four. The same stat applies to the 2007-2008 team, which lost to Siena in the first round of that year’s NCAA tourney.

Not that Stallings seems terribly concerned about the current 1-3 skid that includes home losses to Tennessee and Florida sandwiched around a road win at LSU and a road loss at Kentucky.

“We lost, but we didn’t play poorly,” he said. “So we don’t arrive here feeling badly. Ironically — and I think people forget this — our record was better in the second half of the SEC season (5-3) than in the first half (4-4). I like our chances.”

So does Ezeli, who finished the regular season ranked third in the SEC in field goal percentage (57.1), fourth in blocked shots, 20th in scoring and 17th in rebounding.

“I think this will be good for our confidence going into NCAA tournament,” he said. “We just want to keep getting better every day.”

Ezeli once knew so little about Vanderbilt, “That I thought it was a junior college or something. They were the first school I was looking to cancel off my list.”

Of course, he also didn’t know whom Nigerian native and NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon was.

“But he’s my idol now,” said Ezeli.

Thankfully for Vanderbilt, his parents knew of the school’s academic reputation. When it came time to sign, Ezeli chose VU over Boston College, Connecticut and Harvard, his parents expecting him to eventually become a doctor.

Four years later, Ezeli has switched his major from biology to economics, however, which might actually be a wise decision given Stallings’ thoughts about his basketball future.

Said the VU coach: “I imagine Festus is going to be playing at that next level for a long time.”

Especially if he can help Vanderbilt play at the next tournament level for a long time.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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