As VU preps for season start sans Festus Ezeli, a couple of post options emerge

Monday, October 31, 2011 at 10:05pm
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Josh Henderson (Courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics) 

A helpless feeling swept over Josh Henderson.

Sitting on the Vanderbilt bench last season, at times he’d watch center Festus Ezeli succumb to foul trouble and join him on the sideline. But the 6-foot-11 Henderson couldn’t rip off the warm-ups, jog down to the scorer’s table and check in.

No, Henderson was biding his time as he redshirted his freshman season.

“I mean, it was definitely frustrating,” he said. “There were games where I would sit there and there would be foul trouble, and I felt like I could help. It was really tough just sitting there and watching. I just knew I was getting ready for this year and possibly a fifth year that I’ll benefit a lot from.”

Here comes his opportunity to show the extra year of work paid off.

The Commodores will be in a bind for nearly the first two months of the season. Ezeli must miss the first six games due to an NCAA suspension for accepting a meal and a hotel room from a Vanderbilt alum while on an out-of-town trip over the summer. But even if he was eligible to play, he couldn't.

The 6-foot-11 senior from Nigeria sprained his MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee during practice and last week and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. The injury will not require surgery. Ezeli was already recovering from an offseason procedure on his left knee, in which he ruptured his patella tendon last season.

Ezeli’s first game back might be during a three-game homestand on Dec. 17-21 against Indiana State, Longwood and Lafayette.

Henderson is expected to get extended minutes to fill the void left by Ezeli, who averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds and blocked a school-record 87 shots a year ago.

No one knows better just what the Commodores will miss during that time. Henderson might not have been on the floor during games, but he helped at practice, and it was his job to work against the 255-pound Ezeli.

“I have been preparing my whole life,” Henderson said. “Last year was a big preparation year so I’m just ready to get out there and play. It helped a lot [to practice against Ezeli]. He is one of the best big men in the SEC, one of the strongest. It helped me offensively. It helped me defensively just to improve.”

Added Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings: “When you have to deal with [Ezeli] every day on both ends I just think that would have to make you a better player.”

Henderson, who is listed at 230 pounds, was a hot commodity after a successful career at Cave Spring High School, near Roanoke, Va. Henderson chose Vanderbilt over several ACC schools, including Maryland, Wake Forest and Virginia. While at Cave Spring, he broke the school records for rebounds and blocks and finished second in all-time scoring. As a senior, he averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and four steals while winning a second straight state championship.

Described as a skill player and solid rebounder by Stallings, Henderson feels comfortable with shooting outside the paint.

“He is not the athlete inside that Festus is, but he is pretty skilled,” Stallings said. “He has good post moves. He has got good vision. He sees the floor well. He has a good sense for what he is trying to do down there.”

But the coach isn’t sure he’ll trot out Henderson for the season-opening tip-off against Oregon on Nov. 11 — or in any of the other five games.

Stallings, entering his 13th year at Vanderbilt, is leaning toward starting 6-foot-9 Steve Tchiengang. The senior is recovering from ankle surgery in June but is practicing, and last week he said he feels “between 70 and 80 percent.”

“Steve has obviously played a lot of minutes for us. So he would be the first guy that we’d look at,” Stallings said. “Certainly, Josh will give us an opportunity to show us what we can do. It may require that we play some different lineups, some smaller lineups. ... Josh will have to be clearly better than Steve for us to start Josh. We are talking about a guy who is in his fourth year and another guy who, even though it is his second year, it is his second week [of practice] where he can really play.”

Tchiengang played in all 34 games last year, coming of the bench as the sixth man and averaging 4.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 16.4 minutes a game.

He played through pain last year after injuring his right ankle against Tennessee in January. It turned out that he also shattered a bone in his foot. He underwent successful offseason surgery to remove the bone and is regaining confidence in his play.

“I’m just trying to find my stride back to the person I was and an even better one,” he said. “I have been practicing fully. If there is a game and I was to play, I will be out there.”

Tchiengang, who has been known to get into foul trouble as well, not only can bang inside but can step behind the arc. The Cameroon native hit 41.5 percent (22-of-53) from 3-point range last year, besting sharpshooter John Jenkins in terms of percentage.

“I just believe I need to come in there and do the things that I do best — setting screens, knock open shots, play hard defense and rebound,” Tchiengang said. “Be the tough guy, be the guy that no one wants to mess around [with].”

Tchiengang can relate to Ezeli’s current situation. As a freshman, he missed six games during the 2008-09 campaign because the NCAA suspended him for receiving extra benefits from his host family in Houston.

“It can be frustrating just knowing that you won’t be there trying to help the team as much as you can,” Tchiengang said. “[But Ezeli] comes into practice and competes. He is not coming out there and pouting. He just tries to have a positive mindset and help the team as much as he can.”

When his turn comes, Ezeli is confident there won’t be rust.

“Shoot, you know me — I’m ready to play whenever. Just throw me on the court,” Ezeli said. “It is going to be tough sitting out, but I’ll be ready to go when it is time.”