NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt finally heard some good news in a season were very little has gone right. Center Festus Ezeli is ready to return to the court.
The 6-foot-11, 255-pound senior has been out since spraining ligaments in his right knee six weeks ago but practiced with his teammates on Monday and Tuesday.
“I can go,” he said on Tuesday before practice. “Just put me on the court. I’m ready to go.”
The Commodores (5-3) need a boost. After consecutive overtime losses to ranked opponents, they dropped out of the AP Top 25 this week after beginning the season ranked seventh.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings and his coaching staff are debating on giving Ezeli limited minutes on Wednesday at Davidson. Stallings also said they might wait until Dec. 17 against Indiana State to play him.
“We are trying to break him in slowly,” Stallings said. “He is coming along nicely and doing well. When we get him back to full strength, we think it is going to mean a whole lot, at least we hope it does.”
The Nigerian native said he feels 60 to 70 percent and can jump and cut. He is easing back into running up and down the floor and is working on his defensive slides.
Stallings said Ezeli has looked “a little tentative and certainly not his normal self” but that his presence alone in practice has been an energy boost for the Commodores.
“It is pretty exciting to see him back out there, going up and down with us and being a part of the team on the court again,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “We’re a much better team with Festus.”
Ezeli averaged 13 points and 6.8 rebounds last year in addition to setting the school’s single-season record with 87 blocks.
Vanderbilt has missed his presence down low, especially over the last two games.
At home against Xavier, the Commodores blew a 10-point lead in the second half and were outscored 20-4 over the last nine minutes, including overtime. On the road against Louisville, they let a nine-point second-half lead slip away and gave up a last-second layup to Peyton Siva after leading by five in overtime.
“I felt like they were both games we could have, should have won,” Stallings said. “I don’t take any solace or comfort that they were overtime games . we didn’t win. I certainly expressed my thoughts and displeasure about that to our team earlier this week. I like how our team is competing. I think our effort level is really, really high. Our focus right now is finishing the job.”
Ezeli, who underwent surgery on his left knee in May, was to sit out the first six games regardless due to an NCAA suspension. On a trip this summer, he violated NCAA rules when he accepted a meal and a hotel room from an alumnus of Vanderbilt.
Still, even with the suspension, Ezeli could practice. Two weeks before the season opener, however, he went down with the injury.
“It is just hard being on the bench and not being able to help because I know I can help a lot,” Ezeli said. “It is tough for me. I can’t sleep comfortably with losses like that.”
Copyright Associated Press