Expectations remain high for the Vanderbilt Commodores even after the NCAA suspended the biggest of their three big men -- 6-foot-11 Festus Ezeli -- for the first six regular season games of the season because he accepted a meal and a hotel room from a Vanderbilt alumnus.
The NCAA violation was quite the unexpected body blow, leaving the team's top rebounder apologetic, embarrassed and saying he "should have known better." It was a big enough mistake for the NCAA to take away a big chunk of the center's senior season.
Ezeli could have taken all the free meals and hotel rooms he wanted had he turned to the NBA. Instead he returned to school to get his degree and leave on a better note after the Commodores' first-round exits from the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
"After the loss in the tournament, I can't leave on that note," Ezeli said in April. "There’s no rush for me to want to leave. I want to play here with these guys, I enjoy playing for Coach [Kevin] Stallings and this staff, and I look forward to earning my degree."
His loss in the beginning part of the season will certainly hurt. Vanderbilt faces an interesting season opener against a rising Pac-12 team in Oregon looking to make an early statement. There's a possible game against Texas that Ezeli would miss, and he wouldn't be able to play until Nov. 28 against Xavier.
John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor led the team last season in scoring, but it was Ezeli who provided a physical presence averaging 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while setting a single-season school record for blocks.
The season will start with some disappointment, just as it ended in years past.