UM's Ekezie a study in hard work Student: The 6-foot-10 sophomore center is busy balancing the academic duties of a double major and trying to progress as a Division I basketball player.

December 08, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie's workload last week included writing a six-page paper on the Vietnam War for an American studies course and a couple of lab reports for a chemistry course, taking exams in calculus and chemistry and finishing up some other math homework. And playing in two college basketball games.

"I didn't sleep for two days," Ekezie said Friday.

It might have been one of the reasons Maryland's sophomore center appeared to sleepwalk through Wednesday night's game against UMBC. In 25 minutes of a 67-31 victory, Ekezie scored two points, pulled down three rebounds and committed four fouls.

While Maryland coach Gary Williams attributed Ekezie's first lackluster performance of the 1996-97 season in part to the academic responsibilities of a player with a double major in electrical engineering and business, Ekezie thought there was another reason.

"I play better against people my own size," he said.

Though Maryland still has a few games left against teams with centers much smaller than the 6-foot-10, 253-pound Ekezie, the coming week will provide both a challenge and an opportunity to prove that the progress he has shown in the past month is legitimate.

It also should show how Ekezie, and the Terrapins, might fare in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The week begins today in the Franklin Bank Classic, when

Maryland (4-0) faces California (4-1) in a 1: 30 p.m. game at USAir Arena. The Bears have four players listed at 6-10 and one at 6-9.

The week ends with Maryland's first ACC game, against Georgia Tech and 6-9 Eddie Elisma on Thursday night at Cole Field House. There's also the possibility of a matchup with 7-1 Alexander Koul of George Washington tomorrow night.

"When I play against big guys, they usually have my strength but not my quickness," said Ekezie, who is playing only his fourth year of organized basketball after leaving Nigeria for a year of prep school at Worcester (Mass.) Academy. "When I play against smaller guys, they have the quickness but not the strength."

In Ekezie's case, his improved skills are the result of the work he put in over the summer, on the court and in the weight room.

Much of it was done against and with former Maryland star Tony Massenburg, now with the New Jersey Nets, as well as against Chris Webber of the Washington Bullets. Ekezie said he held his own with both.

Except for the UMBC game, the work has translated into a much more consistent effort than during Ekezie's freshman year. He scored a career-high 19 points in the opener against Howard, had a career-high 10 rebounds against Chicago State, and had 15 points and seven rebounds against Towson State.

"I feel a lot stronger and a lot quicker this year," said Ekezie, who is averaging 10.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 24.5 minutes, compared with 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in about 15.5 minutes as a 260-pound freshman. "I know I can play with anybody in the ACC when it comes to strength and quickness. I know what I have to do to help this team win."

Most important, Ekezie has to stay out of foul trouble. Going into the season, it was thought that Mike Mardesich would back up Ekezie. But when the 7-foot freshman decided to redshirt, it left ,, 6-9 junior Rodney Elliott as the backup center.

It will mean that Ekezie might not be able to play as aggressively as he wants, and it will mean that a very small Maryland team will get smaller when he comes out of games.

"I felt going into the season we would be strong on the perimeter and how good we'd be would depend on how good we were inside," said Williams. "With the way we play, it's good that Obinna can run the way he can now. Last year, he would get too tired and that's when he wouldn't get back on defense and pick up his fouls."

Said Ekezie: "If you start thinking about not fouling, that's usually when you do foul. I'm going to try to wipe it out of my mind and play as aggressively I can without getting into trouble."

That's another part of his game Ekezie is trying to change from last season. He often would find himself thinking about everything but what he had to do against a certain opponent, everything from a pending exam to a previous game. Though he wound up with a 2.7 grade-point average, his on-court performance was often erratic.

"There was a lot of work," said Ekezie. "I had to stay up all night to study or to do a paper. [This year] I got a better schedule and I'm planning ahead. But I'm the type who works well under pressure."

In terms of expectations, there are few for Ekezie. He wasn't expected to be as good as his hero, Hakeem Olajuwon, was at a similar stage. Nor was he expected to make anybody at Maryland forget Joe Smith, whom he had the misfortune of replacing in the lineup.

He has met both -- Smith when the former All-American had his jersey retired last year and Olajuwon last week after a Washington Bullets game -- and has no delusions about his future. He knows he has a long way to go, but is not afraid of making the effort.

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