The Dagger - NCAAB

Had Vanderbilt's non-conference schedule featured more home games against directional schools this season, the Commodores might be less concerned about not having their top big man for the first six games of the season.

Instead the suspension of senior center Festus Ezeli represents a significant obstacle for Vanderbilt living up to its preseason hype.

The school revealed Monday that it self-reported to the SEC and NCAA in August that Ezeli violated rules prohibiting student-athletes from taking extra benefits by accepting a meal and a hotel room from a Vanderbilt alum this summer. Among the six games the NCAA ruled Ezeli must sit out are a home game against improving Oregon and a pair of Legends Classic matchups against North Carolina State and either Texas or Oregon State.

"I am very sorry and would never want to jeopardize my college career over such a petty thing as a meal or a hotel room," Ezeli said in a statement. "I would have been able to afford those things myself. I have always tried to do the right thing; I should have known better and am embarrassed that my mistake could affect my team."

The early absence of its starting center is a body blow to a Vanderbilt team likely to begin the season in the top 10 after Ezeli and wings John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor each passed up the chance to be drafted to return for their senior seasons.

Ezeli averaged 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first season as a starter last year, but it's his 2.6 blocks per game that will be missed the most. Six-foot-9 senior forward Steve Tchiengang and 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Rod Odom will likely absorb Ezeli's much of playing time until he returns.

The good news for Vanderbilt is it will have Ezeli back for perhaps its two most difficult non-conference games: a home matchup with Xavier on Nov. 28 and a road date with Louisville on Dec. 2. Still, it's obviously not an ideal way to start the season for the Commodores.

"All of us are disappointed, especially Festus," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said in a statement. "He is always striving to do the right thing and cares a lot about the university, our program and certainly his teammates. He is allowed to practice and play in our exhibition game and we look forward to his return Nov. 28."

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