May 2, 2012
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, connects with junior center Mouphtaou Yarou as the final week of the 2011-12 academic year winds to a close.
It's early on an April evening as Mouphtaou Yarou ambles into the Connelly Center at the center of Villanova's campus. He waves hello to several students and enters the Belle Aire Terrace, where student radio station WXVU is broadcasting a sports talk show from a platform.
Yarou soon joins the hosts and for the next 15 minutes shares his insights into his team, himself and what the future holds in 2012-13. Throughout the interview, the Finance major (International Business is a co-major) is relaxed and banters easily with his interviewers.
Were he a student who had spent his formative years in the United States, this would have been an impressive display. Coming as it did from a man who emigrated to the country as a sophomore in high school, it is an exceptional display of both affability and adaptability.
The scene serves as snapshot of a truth that sometimes gets lost in the cauldron of BIG EAST basketball: Mouphtaou Yarou may not have arrived at his preferred destination but he's already covered a lot of ground just to reach this point.
That's a message those around him gifted with the wisdom of greater experience try to impart when the opportunity presents itself.
"If I see Mouph and he isn't smiling," says Associate Head Coach Billy Lange, "I say to him: enjoy where you are. To come from a place so far away and to be a leader in this program is pretty special."
The reminder's intent is not a suggestion that Yarou pull back in the quest to reach his potential as an athlete or a student. Rather, it's a gentle nudge that recognizes the need in all of us to take note of that which we have already gained.
Then again, for a man who has traveled so far, it isn't always easy to shake loose from the notion that you have much to repay.
By the time he reached Villanova in the fall of 2009, Mouphtaou Yarou had already been on an incredible journey that took him from an obscure soccer pitch in his native land to the U.S. and a place in the top 50 rankings of most basketball recruiting services while at the Montrose Christian School in Maryland. His signature on a national letter of intent, along with those of Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek and Isaiah Armwood, gave the Wildcats a class ranked in the top five of every service.
There is nothing quite like the hype attached to a promising big man and Yarou's late arrival to the basketball circuit only helped to intensify matters. He was Villanova's most decorated interior signee since Jason Fraser in 2002 with none of the knee issues that hampered the Amityville, N.Y. native during his four seasons on the Main Line (2002-06).
Yet the fuss overlooks a critical component - in most cases, the learning curve for interior athletes is steeper than for those on the perimeter. There is an adjustment to the physical nature of the game, double-teams, not to mention the nimble footwork needed to operate near the basket.
And that is true of athletes who had spent their whole lives playing the game, a luxury Yarou did not enjoy.
Fresh from its appearance in the 2009 Final Four, Villanova entered Yarou's freshman season with a stacked roster. It included Scottie Reynolds, who would earn All-American honors that season, as well as juniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena as well as returning starter Reggie Redding. The only apparent void in the lineup was up front, where Pena needed a sidekick to help compensate for the graduation of Dante Cunningham, who was off to the National Basketball Association. Yarou was the obvious heir and he was the only member of the class of 2013 to join the starting lineup on opening night.
A mere eight days after scoring six points and collecting three rebounds in his college debut against Fairleigh Dickinson, Yarou was on a flight back to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico wondering exactly where his basketball future was headed.
Frank Tchuisi, a native of Cameroon who played four seasons for the Wildcats from 2005-09 and was then serving as a student volunteer assistant, accompanied Yarou back to Philadelphia on that lonely commercial flight. It was Thanksgiving morning and Villanova would tip off against George Mason in San Juan later that day. One night earlier, the VU sports medicine staff had received word of a test result that needed further examination.
"He was very disappointed," recalls Tchuisi, who has remained in the Delaware Valley following his graduation and today is employed at U.S. Liability Insurance. "Mouph is a guy who really cares about other people and I think he felt like he let everybody down. It was his freshman year and he was trying to prove he belonged."
Thus began 10 days of speculation about Yarou's health. In the absence of any verified information as doctors evaluated him, all sorts of rumors sprung to life. Those bothered Yarou less than did the idea that his situation had somehow become a story overshadowing the efforts of his teammates.
On Dec. 2, it was announced that Yarou had contracted the Hepatitis B virus. He began taking medication but was only cleared to resume practicing with the team on Dec. 31. The lost six weeks, where he did little more than ride a stationary bicycle and lift weights apart from the team, did nothing to aid his basketball development, which at that point was at a critical stage.
"We got Mouph back in January," noted head coach Jay Wright, "but he was so far behind in terms of conditioning and being in basketball shape. It's almost like he lost a year in his development because he never could get into a rhythm or in synch with what we were doing."
A hint of Yarou's promise came at a most opportune time, though. He scored 17 points and sank seven key free throws to help the No. 2 seeded Wildcats hold off a spirited upset bid from Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Providence.
The good news is that Yarou's off-court assimilation to Villanova was seamless. The affable big man quickly became a popular and approachable figure on campus. In fact, in one class Dr. Jenny Kissko began the semester by polling each of the students to see how they preferred to be addressed. A person listed as Matthew on a computer sheet, for instance, might prefer to be known as Matt.
When Kissko called on Yarou, he quipped, "you can call me Big Mouphie."
Laughter filled the room and the message was that the big man had both a big heart and an ability to poke fun at himself. He thrived as a student, eventually finding a home in the School of Business and earning Academic All-BIG EAST honors in 2011 as well as an All-Philly SIDA nod.
The transition to basketball, though, was more complex. Yarou is a motivated learner who likes to use his smarts to solve problems. Alas, the methodical approach doesn't translate as well to a basketball court where decisions are made in hundredths of a second.
Yarou's numbers improved to 8.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg as he started all 33 games for a 2010-11 Wildcats team that reached the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season. There was progress, to be sure, but inconsistency lingered. Like the Wildcats themselves, Yarou slumped late, a slide that was exacerbated by a wrist injury suffered in a nasty fall at the BIG EAST Tournament against the University of South Florida. He then played 31 minutes and collected 13 rebounds against George Mason in the NCAA Tournament with what was later revealed to be a broken bone in his wrist.
The wrist injury kept him out of all team workouts in the spring of 2011 adding one more hurdle to the horizon.
A measure of the esteem he is held within the program came when he was named, along with Wayns and senior Dallas Ouano, as team captains. Yarou, who is one of 13 children - hence the No. 13 - was suddenly in a role to which he was completely and utterly unaccustomed.
"I'd never been in that position before," he says now. "When I was at Montrose, Isaiah was there and I was new. I struggled to get used to being a captain in the beginning."
To the public, the captains are the guys on the cover of the media guide who also exchange pleasantries with the officials at mid-court a few minutes before tipoff. But those public bows are mere ceremonial flares compared to the daily heavy lifting of helping point the direction for younger athletes.
"There were times that the coaches were telling me that I have to talk to my teammates," says Yarou, who concedes that his natural inclination is to set a good tone and let others follow suit. "Being a good leader isn't just setting a good example, you have to be vocal too and I think I've gotten better at it."
Of course, 2011-12 did not turn out as Yarou, his fellow captains or teammates had envisioned. A young roster grappled to create its own identity in the face of a withering schedule and late-season injuries that resulted in the first losing season at Villanova since 1997-98. Yarou averaged 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and ended the campaign with a 20 point outing against USF at the BIG EAST Tournament. Yet it wasn't enough to help his club turn the corner.
"What I learned is that it's all about the team," he says. "You have to be united and be together as a team. Everyone here went through the season. We know how hard we have to work to get better."
Yarou says the group never stopped searching for the correct formula.
"We were just trying to win, whatever it took, right up until the final game against South Florida," he says.
Now, the page has turned. Yarou is the only returning captain for 2012-13 and will lean on fellow upperclassmen Maurice Sutton and James Bell for assistance in that area. Wayns and Cheek will move on at semester's end to pursue their aspirations for a career in the National Basketball Association.
"I'm one of the oldest (players) now," he says with a smile.
Given his life experiences, Yarou is wise in ways many of his contemporaries are not. He left home at age 15 and rarely is able to return to Benin to visit family. It's an experience Tchuisi knows well and one of the reasons he has made sure to stay close to Yarou.
"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 concedes he has been known to ruminate at times.
"I used to worry about everything, even things that happened five days ago" he says. "Now I have learned to just let them go. It's something I'm getting better at."
Tchuisi sees that growth and understands where that anxiety comes from.
"He expects a lot from himself," Tchuisi says. "I tell him all the time: don't try to put too much on yourself. Just have a great attitude each day."
Yarou says there is a correlation between having a clear mind and success on the basketball court.
"The game of playing basketball is not just playing basketball," explains Yarou. "The way you play and the way you act on the court affects people too. That affects your life. I have learned at Villanova that whatever you are doing, on the court of off, you have to give it your best effort.
"I've always been a hard worker but I used to worry about the result. I've learned you can't worry about the result. If you concentrate on doing the right things, the results will take care of themselves."
Adds Lange: "You can see how Mouph's grown into his leadership role."
The new season will offer challenges as Villanova tries to rebound. The starting backcourt, which also featured the team's top two scorers in Wayns and Cheek, must be replaced. The roster will again be young - seven of the Wildcats on the '12-13 squad will be freshmen or sophomores. Yet Yarou promises to enjoy what will be his final ride through a season at VU.
"I try to concentrate on getting better each day," he notes. "It doesn't help to get too far ahead right now."
One element that should aid Villanova is the frontcourt synergy between Sutton and Yarou. The 6-11 Sutton's insertion into the starting lineup in February coincided with Yarou's most consistent offensive production. Sutton's quickness and length allow him to guard forwards at the defensive end, enabling Yarou to remain near the glass where he excels as a rebounder. At the offensive end, Sutton's presence allows Yarou to face the basket as a power forward, where he is comfortable draining 12-15 foot jumpers.
"The metrics bear it out - Maurice and Mouph work really well together," Lange says. "Their games complement one another."
In the final seven games of the season - when Sutton was alongside Yarou in the starting lineup - the native of Nattingou averaged 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest. He connected on 50 percent or better of his field goal attempts in five of those seven appearances.
For the moment, Yarou is focused on wrapping up the academic semester and his workouts. He plans to spend the summer largely in or near the Davis Center, honing the footwork and individual skills that are part and parcel of playing effectively around the basket. There will also be plenty of bonding with his teammates as the Wildcats welcome the incoming freshmen for summer school in June.
These days, Lange doesn't often have to remind Yarou to smile.
"Things are going well," Yarou says with, yes, a smile.
His hope, of course, is the lofty expectations which accompanied his arrival will be equaled and perhaps exceeded in this, his final lap on the college circuit. But the superior student now understands the gifts one receives on their journey through life aren't always those visible to the world at large.
The payoff, you see, arrives on its own terms, at a time of its choosing. Yarou has come to accept that is the way these things work..
In so many ways, yes.