John Jenkins. Brad Tinsley. Lance Goulbourne.
At the beginning of the season, those would most likely have been the top choices if Vanderbilt needed to send someone to the free-throw line with a chance to take the lead or clinch a victory late in a game.
How about Festus Ezeli?
“Probably not,” Ezeli said with a laugh before practice on Tuesday. “Now I do because I know I can make it.”
That last statement speaks volumes to Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings.
“I think everything with him is confidence,” Stallings said. “Now don’t get me wrong. He spent a great deal of time in the offseason shooting and improving his touch and improving his stroke. But it still comes down to confidence and he has it. He has shot the ball better at home than he has on the road. His free-throw numbers, percentage-wise, have been better at home. But he is shooting 71 percent in the league and I promise you that we would have signed up for that at the start of the season.”
Heading into Wednesday’s road game at Georgia (6 p.m. on ESPNU), Ezeli is fifth on the team in free-throw percentage in 10 Southeastern Conference games, having made 71.2 percent (47-of-66). That is up 11 percent from 14 games during non-conference play and a drastic improvement from the center’s first two years at Vanderbilt.
Ezeli, a native of Nigeria who has played organized basketball for less than five years, made just 37.3 percent of his free throws last year as a sophomore — down from 50.9 percent as a freshman.
“We haven’t spent a day with him on outside shooting,” Stallings said. “He is the one that has taken charge of his free throws and gotten better at those. Obviously, the improvement from last year is remarkable.”
With his playing time increasing this year as a starter, it only figured to be a matter of time before opposing teams targeted him as Hack-a-Shaq material.
At 6-foot-11 and primarily a post threat, Ezeli knew he would need to improve from the free-throw line. Otherwise opponents would start to deliberately foul and take their chances with Ezeli at the free-throw line instead of letting him pound the ball inside for a layup or dunk.
“When I’m working out, he comes in and he’ll get like at least 200 up or 100 up. I don’t know. It’s crazy,” Jenkins, who has made 89.3 percent of his free throws this season, said. “He has a rebounder with him and he is getting them up and he really cares because he knows to be the player he wants to be he has to make his free throws. And that is what he is doing.”
“You got to end it with 10 [made free throws] in a row as well,” Ezeli added with a smile. “Just confidence [helps] and just seeing it going in a lot of times. ... You just know it is going to go in when you want to.”
Lately, a big majority are going in. Stallings is right. Ezeli is shooting better from the line at home, where he has made 74.7 percent as opposed to 51.6 percent away from Memorial Gymnasium.
So it has helped that of the last five games — in which he has made 19-of-23 (82.6 percent) — four were at home.
Still, they count regardless of where they were made and in the last two games Ezeli has made some crucial free throws.
He made 3-of-4 in the last two minutes of a win against Alabama last Thursday, including two with 1:20 left that gave Vanderbilt a one-point lead. On Saturday against then-No. 18 Kentucky, he made two more with less than a minute left, lifting the Commodores to a five-point advantage in a game they would hold onto win.
“I don’t know if I am surprised or not but I have been very impressed because he has really stepped up and made some big ones in some very tough situations,” Stallings said. “I have been very proud of him and some others, but especially proud of him for the way he has come through for us in the clutch.”
• Georgia (17-7, 6-4) is 10-3 at home and is 5-4 since losing 73-66 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 12. The Bulldogs lead the league in rebounding with 41.1 per game and are led by Trey Thompkins (16.6 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game) and Travis Leslie (14.2 ppg and 7.0 rpg).
This is a big game for both teams as the winner would have sole possession of second place in the SEC East and inch closer to first-place Florida (20-5, 9-2).
The 18th-ranked Commodores (18-6, 6-4) will try to win just their second road game in SEC play this season. Vanderbilt has lost three out of its last four in Athens. The Commodores, however, hope to change that and build on a three-game winning streak, which came during a three-game homestand.
“It is a chance for us to take this momentum on the road,” Ezeli said. “We have struggled a little bit on the road. We have to get rid of that… It would just be good for us to play the same way on the road as we do at home.”
• ESPNU All-Access will air a behind-the-scenes look at Vanderbilt men’s basketball at 5 p.m. on Wednesday on ESPNU. The 30-minute show, which was taped nearly two weeks ago, will feature an all-access look into the locker room, athletic training room, coaches meetings and practice.
The show will also re-run on Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m., Feb. 22 at 3 p.m. and March 5 at 5 p.m.
• The Vanderbilt men’s baseball team was picked to finish second in the SEC East in a preseason coaches poll, the league announced Tuesday.
The Commodores, who begin play at 4 p.m. Friday at San Diego, were 46-20 and reached a Super Regional last year. They have been ranked as high as fourth in several national polls and received 55 points.
Only Florida (66) and LSU (63) received more votes as both teams were picked to win the East and West divisions, respectively. Florida was also selected to win the overall conference championship. Defending national champion South Carolina was picked to finish third in the East and fifth overall.