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Ten Games Into the Season, Festus Ezeli is Emerging as a Star

Vanderbilt fans knew the potential was there. Soon, it looks like the whole world will know as well. Festus Ezeli is for real.

The redshirt junior has put the SEC - and the rest of the NCAA - on notice with his performance through one-third of the season, providing tough interior defense, scoring with relative ease, and making people across Nashville forget all about A.J. Ogilvy's early departure. On a team that was supposed to be led by Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins, Ezeli has become the team's most consistent performer. More importantly, he's come up strongest against the team's toughest opponents so far.

Excluding a 13 minute disaster against Nebraska, "Fezz" has been at his best against the top teams in Vandy's moderately difficult out-of-conference schedule. Even with that game, he's still pulled down at least three offensive rebounds in each major test the team has faced this year - an area where this team was deficient in 2009-2010. Four of his top five rebounding games so far have come against Top 100 opponents. During this span, Ezeli has averaged a rebound for every 2:40 of court time. Though fouls have affected his impact and shortened his minutes, Vanderbilt's man in the middle has proven to an explosive and efficient force when he's on the court.

Festus Ezeli vs. Vandy's Best OOC Opponents
West Virginia (16) 20 2 4 4 9 8 3 8 11 0 1 1 2 5
UNC (25) 25 5 7 5 7 15 4 5 9 1 2 1 1 4
Missouri (30) 33 6 7 4 10 16 3 6 9 0 3 1 6 4
Average: 26.0 4.3 6.0 4.3 8.7 13.0 3.3 6.3 9.7 0.3 2.0 1.0 3.0 4.3
Nebraska (58) 13 0 4 2 2 2 3 2 5 0 2 0 0 4
Belmont (69) 25 7 9 10 14 24 6 4 10 0 1 4 3 3
Average: 19.0 3.5 6.5 6.0 8.0 13.0 4.5 3.0 7.5 0.0 1.5 2.0 1.5 3.5
Total: 23.2 4.0 6.2 5.0 8.4 13.0 3.8 5.0 8.8 0.2 1.8 1.4 2.4 4.0

More importantly, he's proven to be anything but a liability on offense. The Festus Ezeli of the past threw hook shots at the rim with prejudice and was the country's easiest Three Second Violation call. Free throws, especially, were an enigma for the big man. However, this season has seen a major breakthrough for Ezeli, as he's added a few nice post moves to compliment his power and athleticism in the paint. While the redshirt junior still needs to work on his touch around the rim, the growing confidence in his abilities across the faithful Commodore nation suggests that his growth will continue through the season.

The Commodores' center has long been regarded as a project - a player with extreme potential buried under the handicap of inexperience. When Ezeli came to Nashville, his only experience playing organized ball was in an AAU league. Sure, he was a 6'10" stud of an athlete, but the big Nigerian was mostly lost on the court. This year, he seems to have finally grown into the player that people behind the scenes had been suggesting he could become. He's developed a basketball I.Q. to accompany his athletic gifts - and the scary thing is, both are still growing.

Ezeli's legend has been steadily expanding during his time at Vanderbilt. We knew that the potential was there after he was named the team's most improved player after his redshirt freshman year. We saw it in thunderous dunks and big-time blocks in limited minutes off the bench the past two years. Now, through 10 games, we've got an even better idea of what the big man can do when he's turned loose on the SEC January 8th. 

Southeastern Conference big men, take note. Festus is coming for you.