Ed. note: This article was originally supposed to be a breakdown of Vanderbilt's center position. It turns out, Festus Ezeli's path to get to where he is now is compelling enough to write 1,000 words on alone. So, here you go. Sorry, Josh Henderson.
Vanderbilt has the depth to make up for Festus Ezeli's absence early in the season. They can slide Steve Tchiengang or Josh Henderson in his place. They can run a three-guard set and emphasize small-ball over play in the paint. For some games, they could even pull a fan out of Memorial Gym and put him in at center while Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins push this team to victory. However, no matter how many games this team wins while Ezeli rehabs a knee injury, it won't feel the same.
Ezeli is the heart and soul of this Commodore team. The fifth-year senior is a both a testament to Kevin Stallings's recruiting approach, his staff's ability to develop prospects, and the rewards that unflinching hard work can provide. He is, simply put, the epitome of what a coaching staff wants out of any player.
Ezeli's backstory is an interesting one. The big Nigerian came to Nashville as a project - a part-time soccer player who lucked into the body of a NBA center. He had never played organized basketball back in Benin City, and was unable to play at his transplant high school in California, where he lived with an uncle. Ezeli had to learn the game through his local AAU and community college teams, two places where the learning curve was steep for a teenager just learning how to ball.
The young man persevered, but he didn't thrive. As he filled out to 6'11 and 255 pounds, he became a solid rebounder but still had lots to learn. His offensive game was non-existent outside of dunking. He couldn't go more than a few possessions without fouling. His positioning and defensive rotations were far behind similar players who had the luxury of growing up with basketball.
Fortunately, his size and athleticism made the big man a sought after recruit. Despite his lack of experience in organized sports, coaches from Ohio State, UCLA, California, and West Virginia came calling. Ezeli chose Vanderbilt, a squad coming off of a thrilling Sweet Sixteen run. He redshirted his freshman year to adjust to the game, and took his place on the roster behind another member of his freshman class, A.J. Ogilvy.
Ogilvy and Ezeli's careers have been remarkable in their disparities. Ogilvy had years of experience with some of the best basketball institutions in his home country of Australia. He burst onto the scene as a freshman and immediately made a name for himself, averaging 17 points and 6.7 rebounds in his first year in Nashville. He was a gifted scorer who moved gracefully in the paint. His defense, while solid, lagged behind his offensive presence.
Ezeli, on the other hand, hit campus with lots to learn. Playing against Ogilvy every day in practice forced him to sharpen his defensive craft. His hard work on the court earned him the team's own "Most Improved Player" award after his freshman year. Once he was eligible to play, Vandy fans got to see what a man named Festus could do on the court.
Playing behind Ogilvy, Ezeli made his presence felt on the court in NCAA play - but not always in a good way. While Ogilvy moved with surgical precision in the paint, Ezeli had the blunt impact of a shotgun blast. He was a strong post presence who could elevate for rebounds and finish with rim-bending dunks in the paint. He was also a player who seemingly couldn't go more than five minutes without a foul. Three-second violations became known as "the Festus." Free throws were an adventure.
Still, the potential was there, and Vanderbilt fans knew it. Ezeli owned the paint. He blocked shots with authority and was a major deterrent for opponents' driving guards. He filled in the gaps left by Ogilvy, picking up the team's defense when they needed a stop. Most interestingly, while Ogilvy seemed to regress as his time at Vandy wore on, Ezeli only got better and better.
His time came in 2010, when the Australian eschewed his final year of eligibility to declare for the NBA Draft. Festus Ezeli was now Vanderbilt's starting center. He was also the team's only real option in the post. It was only natural to ask questions; could Ezeli handle starter's minutes? Can he stay on the court long enough to change games for the better? Can he be effective if opposing teams foul him whenever he gets the ball in the paint? Most importantly - can this team be better with him than with A.J.?
Ezeli's junior year answered all of those questions emphatically. He became the team's third-option on offense and developed into a strong finisher around the basket. His free throw percentage rose from 37.3 percent to 64.8. He kept his rebounding and block rates steady while cutting down on fouls. Most importantly, he gave the team an air of toughness in the paint that the Commodores never had under Kevin Stallings.
Festus's senior season was supposed to be the icing on a great Vanderbilt career. He's beloved by a fan base that's more frenzied than ever and has become a household name for college basketball fans across the country. His trajectory of improvement suggests that he could be one of the best big men in the country - if he isn't already.
Unfortunately, disaster struck. He was suspended for six games by the NCAA for improperly accepting benefits - a meal and hotel room - from a Vandy alum. Things got worse when he sprained the MCL and PCL in his right knee. That injury will cost him the first six to eight weeks of the season.
However, there's still plenty of time for Ezeli to turn 2011-2012 into a swan song fitting of a Vanderbilt hero. The Commodore faithful aren't going to remember how this team started the season in the same way they will how they finish. Ezeli's been there for three awful NCAA Tournament upsets, and in March he'll have the opportunity to ensure that it doesn't happen again. He'll be playing to lift up his teammates, his school, and Vandy fans everywhere.
More importantly, he'll be playing to move another step forward in a career that started with a few awkward steps inside a Yuba City, CA gym as a teenager. He'll play to show that kid who busted his ass through AAU practices that hard work really pays off. He'll play to ensure that the hours put in bodying up A.J. Ogilvy in practice don't go to waste. In short, he'll play to make sure that his legacy at Vanderbilt matches the person behind the player - a kid who never stopped pushing himself and made use of all the gifts he was given.