Friday’s start won’t be anything new for Festus Ezeli.
The center has started in a season opener for Vanderbilt before – just last year in fact, when he filled in for an injured A.J. Ogilvy. In all, he has made 11 starts over the past two years.
But there is a sense of enthusiasm from Ezeli when he thinks about starting in the Commodores’ 2010-11 opener against Presbyterian at 7 p.m. Friday at Memorial Gymnasium.
That is because, if things go well, this will be his role for the rest of the season. Ogilvy is playing professional basketball in Turkey. Thus, the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Ezeli is indeed the big man on campus.
“I’m excited, man,” a grinning Ezeli said. “A lot more responsibility and I am just ready to go.”
Ezeli, a junior from Nigeria, has always been known for his defense. He has 65 career blocks and blocked three in Vanderbilt’s two exhibition games this season. When he is not getting his hand on the ball his long arms have altered opponents’ attempts and forced them to steer clear of driving inside the paint.
Now Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wants Ezeli to turn up the intensity on offense too.
Ogilvy averaged 13.4 points a game last season and those points will need to be replaced. Ezeli won’t have to do it all by himself but he’ll have to do better than 3.8-point average he had in just 12.7 minutes a game last year.
He showed he could be explosive offensively during Vanderbilt’s first exhibition game against Alabama-Huntsville last week. He scored 12 points, making 4-of-5 shots from the field, in 20 minutes of play. He was less of a factor on Monday against Southern Indiana. He picked up three fouls, including two in the first seven minutes of the game, and played just 12 minutes, scoring only five points.
He’ll need to stay on the court longer and shoot better from the free-throw line.
Ezeli has made just 43.9 percent (50-of-114) of his free throws in his college career. But he says he has been working on that area, calling it “definitely improved,” as he made 5-of-8 from the free-throw line in the two exhibition games.
“I feel liked Festus has played like I expected him to. I have been pleased with his play, other than his fouls the other day in the first half,” Stallings said. “But I have been pleased with Festus’ growth, his maturity, his progress and I think there is a lot more there. I think we have a lot more growth and a lot more of his game that is going to come out as time goes on.”
Ezeli has continued to develop as a player since coming to Vanderbilt in the fall of 2007.
He had never played organized basketball before the summer of 2007 but drew a large amount of attention from college recruiters when he averaged 10 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks on the AAU circuit that season.
He added some muscle after redshirting as a freshman and spent the last two seasons adjusting to the college game. Now Ezeli feels he is on the same level as his teammates.
“Now I think I am catching up. I’ve caught up,” Ezeli said. “I understand a lot more stuff than I did before. So it is easier for me now.”
It appears having a good time has come easy for Ezeli too. He isn’t low on wide smiles and definitely shows his emotions on the court, especially after a big block.
“That is my personality. I don’t know why,” Ezeli said laughing. “I enjoy being here. I enjoy playing this game.”
And he enjoys his new role.
• Shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker and point guard Kedren Johnson both made their commitments to Vanderbilt official when they signed national letters-of-intent Wednesday, the first day of the national signing period for basketball players.
Parker is a Scout.com 4-star recruit out of Georgia who chose the Commodores over Ohio State and Georgia, among others. Johnson is a three-star recruit from Marshall County and had several offers, including from Alabama, Florida and Tennessee.
• Vanderbilt is 10-1 in season openers under Stallings, with its only loss coming in 2006 against Georgetown. The Hoyas defeated the Commodores again that season – in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on their way to the Final Four.
• Presbyterian was 5-26 last season, finishing last in the Big South Conference with a 2-16 record. The Blue Hose won their lone exhibition game last week, an 83-61 rout of Division II opponent Newberry. Hendersonville grad Josh Johnson led Presbyterian with 22 points.
• After Friday’s opener, Vanderbilt’s next home game isn’t until Nov. 24 against Grambling State. On Tuesday the Commodores will fly off to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Vanderbilt opens the tournament against Nebraska at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 18. Then the Commodores will either play West Virginia, a Final Four team a year ago, or Davidson the next day. The tournament wraps up on Nov. 21.
• Maggie Morrison and Kady Schrann signed with the women's basketball team Wednesday. Morrison, a 5-foot-7 guard out of Millersville, Md., averaged 13 points and five assists last year. Schrann, a 5-9 point guard out of York, Pa., averaged 18 points last season as a junior as her high school team reached the state championship game.