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Terps' Ekezie proves a quick study 6-10 freshman grows as student, player

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie first incurred the wrath of Gary Williams the night Maryland played Towson State at the Baltimore Arena.

That was the November evening Ekezie straggled into the Terps' locker room before pre-game warm-ups, several minutes late and well behind the rest of the team.

Turned out he had been writing a paper on his laptop computer during the 40-minute bus ride to Baltimore. Williams, the Terps coach, sensed that Ekezie was not prepared to play basketball.

So three nights after Ekezie played 20 impressive minutes against then-No. 1 Kentucky in his college debut, he got a scant five minutes against Towson State. And, in the process, an object lesson on time management.

"I had a paper due the next day," Ekezie said, "and I was typing the paper. When everybody got off the bus, it took time to turn off the computer and put it in the [carrying case]. It took a while to get to the locker room. He [Williams] got mad and said I wasn't ready to play.

"I don't do that anymore."

Ever since arriving in Worcester, Mass., two years ago from his home in Imo State in southern Nigeria, Ekezie, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman at Maryland, has been learning on the run. It's not all basketball he's learning, either.

This is a student-athlete in the truest sense. On mandate from his father, a petroleum engineer in Nigeria, Ekezie wound up at Maryland not just to play basketball, but especially to take a challenging IBM business and engineering course. Insisting that his son get a quality education, Obi Ekezie very nearly sent Obinna to Rice University in Houston to ensure that it happen.

"Obinna's here to get an education," Williams said before practice yesterday for tonight's game against UMES. "That comes from his dad."

Ekezie found free time scarce during his first semester at Maryland, but the results proved worthwhile. He said he got four B's and a C for the fall term.

If Ekezie got his academic incentive from his father, he got most of his physical stature from his mother. His father is a mere 5-6, and his mother stands 5-11. "My grandfather, on my mother's side, is 6-8 or 6-9," Ekezie said.

It is his size, his youthful exuberance and his shot-blocking ability that have made Ekezie one of the Terps' crowd favorites this season. He received a rousing hand from the Cole Field House faithful last week when he blocked three American University shots before fouling out.

Ekezie has been nicknamed "The Big O," even though he's cut from a different cloth than the original, Oscar Robertson.

He is a power player who lends Maryland a legitimate low-post presence. That this is only his third year of organized basketball is reflected in his freshman statistics.

He is averaging 4.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and nearly two turnovers a game to go with his team-high seven blocks. Ekezie plays behind Rodney Elliott and Mario Lucas for now, although he appears to be the heir apparent to the center position once manned by Joe Smith.

"He has made outstanding progress," Williams said. "When we signed him, everybody said he was a project. If he's a project, he is a project UConn, Maryland and Syracuse all wanted."

Ekezie's quickness is evident. But patterning his game after Nigeria's Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets has led to too many turnovers, he said.

"There are a lot of things I have to learn," he said. "Things like being patient in the post. When I get the ball, I want to make a move instead of seeing where the defense is.

"Hakeem is my biggest motivation. I love the way he plays. But that's a mistake for me to put the ball on the floor. The better move in college is to catch and shoot."

Learning at a furious rate, Ekezie seems destined to achieve, both in the classroom and on the court.

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