Vandy's foreign legion

Pre-game introductions when Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee Tuesday night in Nashville could resemble roll call at the United Nations.

Consider the Commodores' roster:

There's Festus Ezeli, the 6-11 junior center from Benin City, Nigeria.

There's Jeffery Taylor, the 6-7 junior forward from Norkopping, Sweden.

There's Steve Tchiengang, the 6-9 junior forward from Douala, Cameroon.

There's James Siakam, the 6-6 freshman forward who also hails from Douala, Cameroon.

Vandy owes three of those four considerable credit for its 20-6 overall record and its 8-4 SEC mark. Taylor, a second-team All-SEC pick last year, is averaging 14.5 points and 5.7 rebounds. Ezeli averages 12.4 points and 5.2 rebounds while leading the team in blocked shots with 63. Tchiengang averages 17 minutes and 5.3 points per game, hitting a spectacular 46.3 percent (19 of 41) from beyond the 3-point line. Siakam is redshirting.

Vol head man Bruce Pearl has had but one international player in six years on The Hill, Nigeria-born Emmanuel Negedu, and he transferred to New Mexico when heart issues ended his career as a Vol after just one season. Still, Pearl praises the Commodores for spanning the globe in search of talent.

"I give them a lot of credit for that (recruiting well internationally) but also for their athleticism," Pearl said. "This is probably the most athletic Vanderbilt team in a long time."

Because recent NCAA regulations have made it more difficult to sign foreign athletes, many schools have stopped recruiting internationally. That has reduced the competition Vandy faces when it ventures overseas.

"Being the academic institution that they are, they have to have their niche," Pearl said. "It's not been easier to recruit foreign players. In fact, the rules have made it more difficult. Therefor a lot of people have gotten away from it but Vanderbilt has gone to it. There aren't as many people out there that are taking that route."

Vanderbilt coaches are piling up a lot of frequent-flier miles but they're also building some nice recruiting pipelines by making a splash in foreign talent pools. Pearl can relate on a smaller scale.

"Brian Williams wasn't the only reason Tobias Harris came here," the Vol coach said, referring to Tennessee's New York City connection. "But it was helpful. Now that they (Commodores) have gotten some guys coming from overseas, being away from home, I'm sure that's something those guys are able to rally around."

Ironically, for all of the travel Vandy's staff endured while recruiting Nigeria, Cameroon and Sweden, the Commodores' best player grew up just 20 miles from the Nashville campus. That would be John Jenkins of Hendersonville. Based on league games only, the 6-4 sophomore is leading the SEC in scoring (22.2 points per game), 3-pointers (3.3 per game) and minutes (36.8 per game). He's sixth in field-goal percentage (53.1), second in free-throw percentage (92.1) and third in 3-point percentage (46.5).

Pearl says he tried hard to recruit Jenkins but never got a foot in the door. Jenkins apparently did not want to risk getting stuck behind Scotty Hopson, a former McDonald's All-American who was just about to embark on his freshman year with the Vols.

"I think one thing John looked at was Scotty Hopson," Pearl said. "We had a young Scotty Hopson on our team, and they (Commodores) had a Shan Foster that was kind of on his way out. They had a real opportunity for him (Jenkins) to come in and play. We had a young Scotty Hopson in the program, and they're both shooting guards.

"We tried, but he (Jenkins) was very much a Vanderbilt commitment."

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