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Not surprisingly perhaps, the Commodores have not gotten a whole lot of national media love. The ESPN analysts consider us to be a solid underdog team, as does Jeff Goodman at foxsports.com. We can’t really get a peep out of Gary Parrish at CBS, but he didn’t give us any love until we beat Tennessee on the road last year either. They’ll praise Cal and the Wildcats until the cows come home and the little guy as well, but we are not on the national radar yet.
Unlike last year where I lobbied vehemently that this team get some national recognition, I am fine with us not getting the love at this point in the season. We’re going to have a lot of coverage leading into a true measuring-stick game against Missouri on the road, and as I will argue later, I believe this team is ahead of where it was last year. That being said, there is one story that is not being recognized by the national media enough, and that is the outstanding development of Festus Ezeli.
In observing the national landscape, people are quick to point out how Kemba Walker has put UCONN on his shoulders and developed into a national player of the year candidate. I completely agree that Kemba Walker is a total stud, but he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, so it’s hard to say that he was all that unheralded. I also agree that Derrick Williams of Arizona is a great story, as a three star recruit who has become the unquestionable anchor of Arizona’s front court. But while they give the love to Williams for his 27 point performance in a loss against a talented Kansas squad, how can the National Media ignore the performance of Festus Ezeli over the past 6 games?
This was a guy who had barely played organized basketball before he came to Vandy, the very definition of a development project, and as I will point out in the coming weeks, he is the very reason that, despite Ogilvy’s offensive prowess, we do not miss the Big Aussie all that much. I took Kevin Stallings to task for starting Ezeli at the outset, where I was not impressed in his performance against a large Nebraska front court, and I will gladly stick my foot in my mouth at this point. Since that game, Ezeli has averaged, AVERAGED, 15 points, 8 boards, and 2 blocks per game, to say nothing about his 15 and 9 against UNC, or his most recent 24 and 10 against Belmont. Without question, he has filled the void that Ogilvy left, and while Ogilvy may have been able to get to the free throw line and shoot with more consistency, Festus is a superior defender. He still fouls a tad bit too much, but that part of his game is also vastly improved.
As a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he has performed at least as well as ANY big man in the SEC at this point, if not better. Georgia’s Trey Thompkins has played well since returning from injury, but he is averaging 16 points and 8 boards against competition that is not comparable. There’s been lots of talk about the veteran posts on Florida’s squad, as well as the heralded freshman Patric Young, and yet NONE of them are averaging in double-digits in either points or rebounds. Kentucky doesn’t really have a true big man, and the closest player, Terrence Jones, plays a vastly different style of ball, though statistically he’s performed at a similar level. If you compare his performance against UNC to Ezeli’s performance against UNC, however, his 9 points and 6 boards is not as impressive as Ezeli’s 15 points and 9 boards.
And then there’s Brian Williams of Tennessee, who everyone suddenly thought was a solid player for some reason after the NCAA Tournament. Williams hasn’t even been close to Ezeli’s performance on offense or defense at this point. Freshman Tobias Harris has been fantastic, but he is also more of a Terrence Jones type player who does things a little differently from Festus. Marshawn Powell is not statistically close.
The point is, Festus, at this point in the season, is RIGHT up there as the best big man in the SEC, and as I’ll explain more in depth this coming week, the Commodores are better because of it.