Many who saw Festus Ezeli in high school never envisioned much of what they witnessed when they tuned into Vanderbilt basketball games on television this season.
“I have friends talking to me all the time, calling me and telling me how crazy it is,” Ezeli said. “I know people from back in high school who knew me back then and I didn’t make the team. They’re talking about from there to here and watching me on TV, they’re like, ‘What happened?’
“It’s been a crazy transformation, I guess. But I’m still going. I guess I still have more to surprise them with.”
A lot of those same folks will get to the opportunity to see for themselves just how far the third-year sophomore has come Thursday when the Commodores [24-8] face Murray State [30-4] in a first-round NCAA tournament game [1:30 p.m., WTVF-TV Ch. 5] at San Jose, Calif., which is fewer than two hours from Ezeli’s hometown of Sacramento.
Ezeli estimates the crowd at that contest will contain the largest contingent of family, friends and supporters ever to see him play in person. The combination of the proximity to home and the fact that the first weekend of this year’s tournament coincides with the start of spring break for some has created unprecedented opportunity for them to attend.
“When my family’s there, I think I play better,” he said. “I’m more comfortable because I feel like I’m at home. … They don’t get to watch me very often.”
He certainly will be tough to miss when he’s on the floor.
At 6-foot-11, Ezeli is one of five players listed at 6-foot-8 or taller for Vanderbilt, which has a significant size advantage over its first-round opponent. He, along with 6-foot-9 Steve Tchiengang, backs up 6-foot-11 starting post player A.J. Ogilvy. Combined, those three average better than 20 points and 11 rebounds per contest.
Murray State, the Ohio Valley Conference champion, has only two in that range, none taller than 6-foot-9.
“We feel like our team is such that the inside game is very critical to our success,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “So we need to get the ball in there and get baskets and fouls and it doesn’t just mean going to guys who are big in size.”
Ezeli, who was discovered by Vanderbilt coaches while playing AAU basketball, acknowledges that he remains very much a work in progress. However, there have been moments when he, in fact, has been something to see.
Most recently, he scored six straight first-half points and finished last Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal defeat to Mississippi State with eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Twice in non-conference play, including against Tennessee State — the only OVC opponent the Commodores faced this season — he scored in double figures.
“I started off good (Saturday),” Ezeli said. “I know I could do that. For some reason, I couldn’t sustain it. I’m not sure why. … I hadn’t had that much fun in a little while.
“I plan to keep it going, though.”
Particularly since he gets to go home — or close to it.
“We only get a certain number of tickets, but I have a bunch of friends who said they have tickets to come of the game,” he said. “It probably will be a lot.
“… I’m just excited to go in there and play some ball.”