Jan. 19, 2013
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, brings us up to date on sophomore swingman Darrun Hilliard.
The BIG EAST season is in full swing and it is fair to say that Darrun Hilliard is eager to embrace it.
He is not, in that regard, much different from any of his teammates. Yet this ride through the BIG EAST underscores the strides the smooth 6-6 swingman from Bethlehem, Pa., has made in the past 12 months. Where in January of 2012 he was a rookie unsure of what came next, today he is the kind of maturing multi-skilled player who can make a difference in the taut battles that have long defined the league.
"I feel like whatever you put into something," Hilliard says, "is what you get out of it. If you put in the work, you will get what you want out of it. I choose to believe that."
It's a work ethic that helped bring Hilliard to the BIG EAST and has been a trademark of his time at Villanova. He can be found in the Davis Center at all hours, lofting jumpers and working on the details of his game, large and small.
"When I haven't been shooting well," he notes, "(it) just means I have to get in the gym more."
That ethos helped him become a standout at Liberty High School up the road in Bethlehem, Pa., and made him a priority recruit for a collection of proven basketball programs. Yet in 2011-12 for the first time in his career it wasn't enough to earn him regular minutes as the regular season picked up steam in January and February. Hilliard, long accustomed to being the central figure in his team's attack, often spent more time watching on game night than he did on the court.
After averaging just over 25 minutes a game in the non-conference portion of Villanova's schedule, Hilliard averaged only 12.5 minutes per game once the BIG EAST games got underway. In part that was owed to circumstance - the Wildcats' top scorers, Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, were the team's most experienced guards. In order to reduce the ball-handling workload of Wayns, VU leaned on point guard Ty Johnson as its first guard off the bench. That left little room in the rotation for Hilliard or fellow rookie Achraf Yacoubou.
"It was tough," Hilliard states. "I can't say that it wasn't. But Coach (Jay) Wright, all the players and staff were there for me. When I was put into the games I felt like they all had confidence in me.
"It was an adjustment. I was used to being a star and getting my numbers. But every freshman goes through that. It had its ups and downs and I just had to deal with it, do my best and be a great teammate on the bench."
Hilliard kept pushing forward the only way he knew how - through grit and determination. There were no promises about future chances but it was apparent that after the departures of both Wayns and Cheek for the professional draft in the spring, there was suddenly a void in the backcourt where there had not previously been one. Hilliard put his head down and went about getting better.
The first area of growth came in the weight room. The BIG EAST exacts a significant physical toll and the lean Hilliard understood that he had to boost his strength to carry him through the rugged 18-game slate. In tandem, with Strength Coach John Shackleton he added muscle that can help him combat the powerful bodies he will find in the BIG EAST.
It also didn't hurt that Hilliard is one year older.
"Having that one year under my belt helps a lot," he states. "Some guys come in, like Ryan (Arcidiacono), and come in with that confidence and ability to make an impact right away. Last year in the Big East I showed that I wasn't as prepared or physically ready to carry that load. My body wasn't there yet. I'm young for my grade and that may have hindered me, if you want to use that as an excuse, which I don't.
"This year, I'm more confident and I'm stronger mentally. I'm ready for it now. I know the coaching staff and my teammates have confidence in me."
Those new responsibilities have been earned. Hilliard carved a niche for himself in the pre-season and was in the starting lineup when Villanova hosted UDC on Nov. 9 and has remained there into January. He has had his share of big moments, including a career-high 22 points that helped spark a rally from eight points down in the final minute of regulation to force overtime en route to an 89-81 Wildcat triumph over Purdue in the semi-finals of the 2K Sports Classic on Nov. 15.
Even more impressive was Hilliard's work in his BIG EAST bow for 2013. Despite enduring a difficult night shooting the basketball, he nonetheless made huge plays in crunch time to help the Wildcats stave off St. John's 98-86. He drew a foul while attempting a 3-pointer with 1:31 left on the clock in regulation with VU trailing 81-78. He smoothly drained all three free throws.
Then, in the extra session, he scored the first four points of overtime, to help key a 15-3 run that secured the victory for Villanova. He ended the overtime with six points and a pair of steals.
"Darrun made some huge plays for us," stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
Though it was a good start, Hilliard knows well the challenges that lie ahead. The BIG EAST features a grueling gauntlet that tests the mettle of young and old alike. He has come far but understands the chase is a long way from finished.
There is more responsibility, to be sure - that comes with growth.
"It's another challenge," notes Hilliard. "It's just great to know that everyone has confidence in me. When your teammates have confidence in you and you have confidence in yourself, it helps you take this on, and as Coach (Billy) Lange says, get it done."
His first ride through the BIG EAST was not the stuff of storybooks. In truth, it was a very typical tale for a young player adapting to a rugged environment.
A new season is underway, however.
Darrun Hilliard is now better prepared to deal with all that comes with stepping into the crucible of one of America's toughest basketball environments.