SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The educations progress.
Obinna Ekezie, a foreign student from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, has completed the business requirements of his double major at Maryland, and is now focusing on mechanical engineering.
Ekezie, the athlete, continues to learn more about basketball, such as when to put the ball on the floor, and where to hide a forearm on Antawn Jamison's back.
Opposing teams, meanwhile, keep making new discoveries about Ekezie, the 6-foot-10, 256-pound force of nature at the center of Maryland's hopes in this NCAA tournament.
The Terps play Utah State tomorrow (2: 42 p.m.) in a first-round game in the capital of California. The state's flag displays a bear, and that's a fitting symbol for the way Ekezie -- and Maryland -- have played this season. A grizzly has made some appearances, ready to devour anything in its path. Occasionally, a teddy, all soft and cuddly, comes out.
"He's made amazing strides in terms of learning the game," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "As he plays more, he's going to get better. It still might be three or four years down the road before he reaches his full ability."
There are games in which Ekezie performs like an NBA lottery pick. There are games in which the junior reverts to spells of turnovers, missed layups and silly touch fouls, and the realization sets in that this is his fifth year of organized basketball.
There are games in which Ekezie displays both sides.
Cole Field House was so loud Jan. 14, you couldn't even hear Dick Vitale screaming about some of the drop-step moves made by Ekezie, whom he began to rave about last season. Ekezie made seven of his 10 shots that day against No. 1 North Carolina, which has one of the nation's best interior defenses.
Ekezie also played just 22 minutes, and fouled out with the Terps trailing in regulation. His replacement, freshman Mike Mardesich, was the late hero in Maryland's biggest victory of the season.
In Maryland's first eight games, Ekezie made just 53.2 percent of his free-throw attempts. He put in more work, changed the way he was lining up the seams, and shot 82.3 over the next seven games. Then he went to Wake Forest and had a Shaq attack, missing six straight with the game still on the line.
Fact: In Maryland's first 14 ACC games, Ekezie made just 38.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. That's acceptable from three-point range, but not in the pivot.
"I don't think I wasn't playing hard," said Ekezie, who averages 13.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. "I was rushing myself on the court. I'm not rushing now. I was really anxious to play well, and I wasn't letting the game come to me. There was a stretch when I was trying to create things that weren't there. I had to learn how to be aggressive, and know not to take the shots I can't make."
Maryland is playing its best basketball of the season, winning seven of its past 10, because the Terps have smoothed out their half-court offense and are taking advantage of Ekezie's strengths. He's recognizing double teams, and passing to the open shooters and open cutters. They know he needs space to maneuver, preferably down on the left block.
With just under four minutes left in Saturday's ACC tournament semifinal against North Carolina, Ekezie strayed from his safe place. Maryland's center is stationed at the top of the key in some patterns, but Ekezie found himself on the left wing, where his cross-court pass was turned into an easy basket by Jamison and a lead for the Tar Heels.
Ekezie had been doing some seriously strong defensive work on Jamison, whose mysterious groin pull seemed to worsen every time he was denied the ball. Ekezie also hadn't scored in the second half, however, and he was furious during a 20-second timeout.
Within seconds, the Terps screened for their big man, and he made a jumper near the foul line. On their next possession, he backed in, made a fadeaway and was fouled. Before he completed the three-point play, Ekezie walked to the other free-throw line and yelled at several thousand North Carolina fans.
Ekezie said he was "just so pumped up." What was going through the mind of senior captain Rodney Elliott?
"Where is he going?"
Wherever he wants.
Md. vs. Utah St.
What: West Regional, first round
Where: Sacramento, Calif.
Time: 2: 42 p.m. EST
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM) Line: Maryland by 10
Navy vs. UNC
What: East Regional, first round
Where: Hartford, Conn.
Time: 12: 20 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: N. Carolina by 28
Pub Date: 3/11/98