Vanderbilt's fifth position brings another feast-or-famine quality to the table, as the Commodores have only two true centers on the roster and both bring questions about their abilities to play big minutes - either due to foul trouble or inexperience. Big man Festus Ezeli leads the charge as the elder statesman of a young Vandy club, and the redshirt junior is primed for a breakout year with A.J. Ogilvy leaving to play pro ball in Turkey. Behind him, freshman Josh Henderson is the only other true pivot on the depth chart, and he may only be able to help the 'Dores out in practice as a redshirt season seems to be calling his name.
While both players present solid potential, their lack of staying power on the court will make Head Coach Kevin Stallings's rotations extremely important. Stallings has already gone on record to say that power forward Steve Tchiengang will be option 1B at center for the 'Dores, and while Stevie Thunder lacks the post presence and length of a true center, he's a tenacious rebounder who should be able to take over the position for a few extended stretches per game. In the end, Tchiengang's ability to cover opposing centers, as well as Henderson's ability to adjust to NCAA play, will play a big role in Stallings's redshirt and rotation decisions. Tonight's exhibition with Southern Indiana should help clear things as the season approaches.
Festus Ezeli - Center will be a position of interest not only for the dynamic lineup changes that are sure to come, but also to see if Ezeli can make the leap from role player to star in 2011. The big Nigerian came to Nashville with a NCAA-ready body but little in the way of basketball experience. In his three years on campus he's already made big strides to be a valuable part of the team's rotation in 2010, but has the size and athleticism to make a run at the NBA if he can reconcile his abilities with the rhythm of SEC basketball. While Ezeli has already mastered the tough and mean, he'll have to add a little gentle and finesse to his game to become an impact player.
Ezeli is a 6'11", 255 lb mass in the middle who runs the floor with ease and possesses above average jumping ability. He's been primarily a defensive specialist for the Commodores over the past two years, biding his time behind A.J. Ogilvy at center and slowly putting together an offensive game. Ezeli is best known for his shot blocking and rebounding, as his long arms and solid base allow him to dig into opponents in the paint and then rise up over them to get to the ball. However, he still hasn't learned how to control his body properly and too often is lured into easy fouls by biting on upfakes and playing too aggressively on help defense. As a result, he's averaged a foul in just under every six minutes he plays on the court - making him a liability in the past two years.
Offensively, Ezeli has been painful to watch at times, especially from the free throw line (37.3% in 2010). While he's showcased a developing array of moves in the post, he's lacked the touch to make his shots fall on a consistent basis. Too often he'll create space and put up a well-timed hook shot, only to whip it full speed at the backboard and have it carom to a defender. While he can finish strongly around the hoop (Ezeli's put-backs and alley-oops will make up a nasty YouTube highlight reel this winter), he's still got to polish his range out to 15 feet to be a valuable fourth option on offense. However, early reports suggest that he's made major strides and is ready to fill Ogilvy's shoes on both sides of the court.
2011 will be a huge year for Ezeli and his fans, as we'll finally get a chance to see what he can do with consistent minutes. He's done a great job of learning the game and has gotten appreciably better and more comfortable on the court in each year he's played at Vanderbilt. This year, the coaching staff had to communicate two major aspects to him - controlling his body defensively to avoid fouls and adding a couple of go-to moves on offense to keep opponent honest. Taking care of both means that he can be counted on for 25-30 minutes per game as the true center that this team needs. Festus has shown that he's a good learner, and if he can add those two components to his game without sacrificing his defensive presence, he'll rack up quite a few double-doubles along the way.
Josh Henderson - Henderson's 2010-2011 status is still up in the air, and the least-heralded of the team's incoming freshmen may find himself staring at a redshirt year if Coach Stallings deems the team's current center rotation sufficient. Henderson's advantage for claiming a rotation spot lies in his size - at 6'11" 230 lbs, he's got the length and back-to-the-basket game that makes him valuable despite his lack of experience. However, the 18-year-old still needs to build strength to play defense in the SEC, and a redshirt year - combined with Jeffery Taylor's horsemeat diet - could be the best use of his first year on campus.
Hendo is a project for the 'Dores, but he's also an athletic big man with a solid basketball IQ passed down from his father David, who played center for Maryland in the 80s. He passes well and has good instincts for the game, but needs time to adjust to the speed of his new league. Unlike Ezeli, Henderson seems to have the hands and finesse part of the game in order, but needs time to build the physical side of his play in order to contribute. While he could step in for a few minutes in spurts in 2011, don't be surprised to see him redshirt his freshman season and spend his time locked in the weight room.
This lack of depth will make the performances of Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne more valuable, as the team's depth at the 3/4 will likely throw the Commodores into lots of three forward sets on the court. While this will present some problems on the boards, it will give Vandy an ultra-athletic lineup that can get up and down the court with ease. Combined with shooters that can stretch the floor, the team's inexperienced post players should have lots of opportunities to score without being blanketed underneath. Creating open looks in the paint will be paramount to this team's success - fortunately they have the talent to pull that off.