One of the African players I’ll be following during the NCAA men’s college basketball championship tournament is Festus Ezeli, a 21-year-old center for Vanderbilt University who is from Benin City, Nigeria.  The muscular Ezeli was recently named the most improved player in men’s college basketball by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Ezeli’s rise to national basketball prominence has been rocky and certainly not forecast by his younger days in Benin City.  Festus never picked up a basketball in Nigeria and did not compete in organized athletics.  He learned the game after coming to the United States in 2004 to live with his uncle Emeka Ndulue, a pediatrician.

Ezeli once had aspirations to be a medical doctor, like his uncle, but the junior (third-year player) center has switched his major at Vanderbilt to economics – a field that should help him in contract negotiations if he makes it to the professional ranks in the National Basketball Association.

One of Ezeli’s teammates, guard Chris Meriwether, grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where Vanderbilt University is located.  His advice to youngsters: “With hard work and a positive attitude, anything is possible.”  Meriwether says Ezeli’s hard work and positive attitude has helped Vanderbilt get seeded 5th in the Southwest region in “March Madness,” the nickname for the popular, single-elimination basketball tournament.

Festus Ezeli and Vanderbilt (23-10) play their opening game March 17th against Richmond (27-7) in Denver, Colorado.