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As Ezeli's AAU coaches helped him pare the list down—the finalists were UConn, Boston College, Harvard and Vanderbilt—he had his heart set on another option: prep school, where he could delay D-I and try being an active member of a full-time team for the first time. Muller and Stallings showed him that Vandy offered something better. Ezeli could redshirt; he'd be reared by a staff already familiar with international kids and homesickness; and he could earn the top-notch college degree he wanted. "I realized that he could be a player of no consequence, with no feel, who never developed into anything," Stallings says now. "Or he could be a guy who became a dominant force. The range was bigger and wider for him than any kid I'd ever seen."
They began to see it at practice. At first the sessions were uniformly horrific; tapes from Ezeli's first two years show his Australian classmate A.J. Ogilvy, a 6'11", 250-pound All-SEC center, manhandling the largest bio major in Vanderbilt history. But Ezeli—who didn't even know how to properly box out—quickly resolved to attack basketball like coursework. The blankest of slates, devoid of any habits at all, he was the Commodores' model student, perpetually asking questions and pulling all-nighters to go over the playbook and game film. By his third season Ezeli started to dominate practices against Ogilvy, coaches say, and as lessons clicked into place they'd see his face light up like a child's.
Last April, however, when Ogilvy declared early for the draft, Stallings privately wondered if the Commodores could really contend with Ezeli going from a 12.7 minutes-a-game reserve to a starting role. Though the center had turned the corner in practice—step one—games were something else: He averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds last season and shot a heinous 37.3% from the line. This was due, in no small part, to a very simple reality: Ezeli had never played in packed arenas before. He suffered from stage fright. He choked.
In November 2008, for instance, when Vanderbilt visited eventual national champion North Carolina for a closed scrimmage, Ezeli turned heads again by aggressively banging bodies with the Tar Heels' heralded frontcourt. But seven days later, when Vanderbilt hosted Division II Alabama-Huntsville for an exhibition, Ezeli scarcely jumped. "He couldn't even lift his arms to rebound because there were people sitting in the stands," Stallings explains.
Even last year, in Vandy's first-round loss to Murray State in the NCAA tournament, Ezeli found himself leg-locked due to nerves. Balls flew through his hands; the game seemed to be playing in fast forward. "I wasn't even in control of my body," Ezeli admits. "When I got into games I regressed, and got back to looking like old Festus again. When I tried to box out I fell down. It was crazy."
So last summer Ezeli watched more film than ever, which helped him visualize live-game situations. To soften his mitts a team manager, Sam Ferry, chucked basketballs at him for 30 minutes four times a week, with Ezeli sometimes wearing gardening gloves or weighted pads. And as for foul shots? Says Muller, "I bet you money there's not a person in this world that's shot more free throws than Festus in the past nine months." The payoff: Ezeli was shooting 64.8% from the line through Sunday, making 51 of 70 (72.9%) over his last 12 games. He has added a righty hook shot to his post repertoire, while his offensive rebounding rate (15.2) ranks 24th nationally. And he keeps asking questions. Former NBA center Will Perdue set the school's single-season blocks record of 74 that, at week's end, Ezeli was one shy of breaking. When he called a Vandy game for ESPN last month, Perdue says, "Festus found me and asked, What do you think about me? What can you recommend?"
Coaches like Tennessee's Bruce Pearl and Belmont's Rick Byrd confirm a formerly inconceivable development. "I don't think they miss [Ogilvy] at all," Pearl told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January. "Ezeli has improved so much that he gives them the best of both worlds." Yes, the tournament fate of Vanderbilt—No. 13 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency—rests heavily on the 6'4" Jenkins, whose scoring average of 19.5 points through Sunday led the SEC. One of the country's best pure shooters (his career three-point percentage is 44.1), Jenkins is also a no-nonsense practice fiend who became the first five-star recruit in Vandy's history after committing as a junior out of Station Camp High in Gallatin, Tenn. The Commodores' offense is constructed to give Jenkins clean looks. And it is the newfound interior presence of Ezeli, Stallings says, that not only helps free up their marksman but also "gives us a chance to be a good team."
The rise has not been without drawbacks. Much to the dismay of Uncle Emeka, the career path leading to Festus Ezeli, M.D., is indefinitely on hold. His increasing devotion to the team forced him to switch majors from lab-intensive biology to economics last year. ("You can imagine what it is like to hear his perspective on world trade, globalization, and the economics of American sports," gushes Vanderbilt chancellor Nick Zeppos.) Luckily, though, a future in an even more selective industry looms on the horizon. "Now, I don't know what the finished product is going to be," Stallings says. "But I'd be really surprised if that kid didn't play in the league for a long time."
Of course, Ezeli's family has mandated that he get his Vanderbilt degree first—not that he's in any particular rush to leave Nashville. From developing his left hand to continually upping his free throw percentage to gaining a firmer grasp of microeconomics and Southern culture, there are so many things he still wants to learn. And when he thinks about his life, that search for knowledge—more than anything else—is exactly why Ifeanyi Festus Ezeli-Ndulue is here.
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