Feb. 22, 2013
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, takes a look at senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou as he enters the home stretch of his career as a Villanova Wildcat.
In a basketball life that is still quite young, Mouphtaou Yarou has already confronted a lifetime's worth of experiences.
The acclaim with which he arrived from Montrose Christian School in Maryland rivaled that of any Villanova big man this side of 2002 McDonald's All-American Jason Fraser. Enthusiastic followers of the high school scene touted his potential as a relative basketball novice only three years removed from a life in the Western African nation of Benin.
In his first month as a college basketball player, Yarou earned himself a starting spot as the only freshman in a lineup that would help Villanova rise to No. 2 in that nation in February. But in the second week of the season, Yarou was sidelined by an illness that kept him off the practice court until New Year's Eve. By the time he returned, so much of the continuity he had begun to establish with his teammates was lost.
For all of that, it was still Yarou's 17-point performance in an opening round NCAA Tournament game against Robert Morris that was largely responsible for No. 2 seed Villanova staving off an upset bid from the Colonials in Providence.
As a sophomore, Yarou was a solid component on a squad that reached the school's seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament before suffering a wrist injury on a nasty fall in BIG EAST Tournament contest against USF. One year later as a junior Yarou learned what it took to become a leader through painful lessons as the Wildcats searched for an identity.
And, now, in his final act, he is the emotional and spiritual leader of a young group of Wildcats who were not present for some of those peaks and valleys that have marked a truly unique basketball journey.
Yet for all of that, at his core, Mouphtaou Yarou has never lost his way. He is beloved on the Villanova campus as much for the person he is, as for what he has brought to the basketball floor.
"We talk about attitude to our guys a lot," states Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it. Mouph is the epitome of that. He's an amazing guy and I think everyone at Villanova appreciates that."
On Saturday the senior will make his final regular season home appearance at the Pavilion as the Wildcats host No. 17 Marquette (19-6 overall, 10-3 BIG EAST) at 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2/1210 WPHT). Yarou and fellow senior Maurice Sutton will be honored along with seven student managers in a pre-game ceremony set to get underway at approximately 5:40 p.m.
Yarou never had the luxury of slipping quietly into the back row of a classroom. At 6-10, that pretty much comes with the territory. Yet it was more than simple size. Yarou was one of the key figures in a recruiting class that came to Villanova ranked second in the country. That this group arrived in the wake of the program's 2009 NCAA Final Four appearance only enhanced the hoopla.
It was a new twist for a former youth soccer player from Benin who was still working to assimilate the nuances of this sport.
"There was a lot of hype," he recalls with the weary smile of a young man who lived those days. "Coach Wright was asking us to be humble and hungry but around us it felt like people wanted to treat us like kings. It wasn't easy."
Yarou never shied from the daily quest to improve. It's just that his course was steeper than most. Since he had not grown up in the United States, his basketball instincts were unrefined. Simple items that were second nature to those who had come of age in America were new to him.
There was also the matter of language. Yarou was and is an exceptional student who speaks multiple languages, including his native tongue of French. When he stepped on to the Villanova campus his English was more than adequate in the privacy of a quiet conversation or in a classroom. But in the frenzied atmosphere of a packed arena with as many as 20,000 fans generating ample thunder, basic communication between teammates became more of a challenge.
Toss in the fact that Yarou was far from home and a perfectionist at heart, and the seeds for anxiety were clearly in place.
Fortunately, Yarou had people to lean on. One of those individuals was former Wildcat Frank Tchuisi, a senior on the 2009 Final Four team who had endured many of the same challenges Yarou did after coming to the United States from Cameroon to pursue education and basketball. During Yarou's freshman season, Tchuisi served as a graduate manager and took the newcomer under his wing.
"It's not an easy task to be far from your family," says Tchuisi, who attended St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey after coming to America. "You're trying to do something different, to get an education and play basketball. You aren't doing it with your family next to you. Most kids see their families at the games or when there is a break in school. When you come from another continent, you don't really have that.
"When you have family far away, you are constantly thinking about them. You want to be sure they are OK."
Yarou made friends quickly on campus thanks to a quick smile and affability. He enrolled in the Villanova School of Business early in his stint at Villanova and will graduate in May. Over the course of his career on the Main Line he has maintained a double major in Finance and International Business, though he concedes that he wasn't convinced in the beginning that was the right call for him.
"I knew Villanova has a great business school," he says, "but I wasn't sure about a double major. Coach Wright and Frank encouraged me to look at it and I'm glad I did."
His development on the court played out against the backdrop of those lofty basketball expectations. There were some notable highlights, including a 16-rebound performance in 2010-11 against UCLA and clutch efforts this season to help Villanova to wins at Vanderbilt and USF. But there was also the sting of 2011-12, when the Wildcats won 13 games as Yarou and classmates Wayns and Cheek took on the mantle of program elders in their junior season.
Leadership in a foreign land in a sport he himself was still working to master did not come easily for Yarou. Yet by dint of sheer effort and the charismatic personality that has made him appealing to the entire student section at the Pavilion - from whence the chants of "Mouph" can still be loudly heard - Yarou has become the kind of veteran presence most successful units lean on.
"Mouph takes great pride in being a Villanova Basketball player," says Wright, "and his leadership has been really important in this team's development."
These days, Yarou now has adopted the role of elder brother to freshman forward Daniel Ochefu. The two roomed together last summer and the coaching staff is convinced Yarou's mentorship has paid major dividends for Ochefu.
"Mouph has taught me a lot," notes Ochefu.
Yarou's worksheet is not limited to the intangibles either. He is a four-year starter with 976 career points and 768 rebounds to his credit. The forward recently moved past former teammate Antonio Pena into 14th place on the all-time Villanova rebounding list and could become only the 56th Wildcat to score more than 1,000 career points in the blue and white.
His time as a Wildcat is nearing a close and Yarou says he hasn't really begun to contemplate the emotions that will accompany his farewell. After four years, he has learned well the value of the next play and the next game.
Yarou's journey has been complex and included hurdles it would have been difficult to envision in those heady days of 2009. And, though, he hasn't spent much time pondering a legacy he offered a simple thought as he wrapped up an interview for "Inside Villanova Basketall" recently.
"I tried to be a good student, a good teammate and a good person," he said.
By virtually any standard, Yarou has delivered on all three of those most essential objectives.