Festus Ezeli watched from an unfamiliar position — the sidelines.
As his teammates participated in voluntary workouts this summer, Vanderbilt’s 6-foot-11, 255-pound center could only observe — and anticipate his return.
Ezeli underwent knee surgery in May and was restricted from stepping onto the basketball court until August.
“I was sitting out and they were working out and I’m thinking, ‘Man, these guys are getting better without me,’” Ezeli said. “I feel like that has become the thing I am known for — getting better, the guy that is improving all the time. I was thinking, ‘Man, I need to get better. So I can’t do that sitting over here.’ ... That’s what my motivation was.”
With the 2011-12 opener less than a month away, the senior feels energized and healthy as he prepares to take to the floor on Friday for Vanderbilt’s first practice.
The Commodores will host a Memorial Madness event at 8 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium that is free and includes both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. The festivities will include team autograph sessions, special player introductions, a scrimmage and slam dunk and 3-point shooting contests.
Ezeli returns after averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds last season. He also set a school record with 87 blocked shots.
He started in all 34 games — and played through persistent knee pain, which was believed to be tendonitis. As it turned out, he had a ruptured patella tendon.
“I kept playing through it so it began to deteriorate,” he said. “It made it a little worst but it is all good now. I’m just trying to get back. ... Obviously time off will slow you down a little bit. But if I had played without the surgery, it would have been a lot slower process.”
While he sat out, Ezeli said he watched game film and talked to the coaching staff to improve in other areas. Now that he is on the hardwood again, he hopes to regain the explosiveness that made him one of the most dominant big men in the Southeastern Conference last year.
“Ever since [returning to the court] I have been faster,” he said. “I have been playing better and I feel better. So that is going to make my workouts a little more efficient than what it would have been if I didn’t have the surgery. I don’t think it slowed me down at all. I just keep going.”
Ezeli, who was born in Nigeria and has played organized basketball only since 2007, is set to graduate next May with a degree in economics. That was just one reason he decided to return for his senior season instead of declaring early for the NBA draft.
“What’s the point of coming to Vanderbilt and spending four years here and not getting a degree?” he said. “My mom, especially, is very big on academics and very big on just the prestige that comes with having a diploma. I have to have that.”
Another reason Ezeli stayed in school was the chance to lead the Commodores on a deep postseason run. Senior forward Jeffery Taylor and junior guard John Jenkins also put aside their NBA aspirations, and Vanderbilt should be a top 10 preseason team. All five starters return, along with team’s top three reserves.
Last year, the Commodores exited the NCAA Tournament in the opening round — for the third straight time — after a 23-11 record and 9-7 record in conference play.
“Our minds weren’t there yet where we thought we were done here,” Ezeli said. “Whenever you decide to move onto the next stage, you have to feel you are done where you are and you have accomplished what you need to accomplish. We just felt like we haven’t done that yet. We still have some unfinished business.”
• Tournament tickets: Tickets for the second and third rounds of the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Nashville go on sale at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Bridgestone Arena will host six games on March 16 and 18 and tickets may be purchased at www.ncaa.com/mbbtickets . Only ticket packages are on sale. Seats for all six games (three sessions) are $189 or $234.
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium will host first and second-round games of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament March 18 and 20. All-session passes for all three games are $27 for adults and $27 for children. It is the first time the Commodores have hosted tournament games in six years.
Tickets may be purchased by calling 615-322-4653 or online at vucommodores.com.