June 3, 2014
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, features a June look at senior-to-be Darrun Hilliard, who will add a leadership component to his role as a Wildcats' guard in 2014-15.
Though there are many highlight reel moments that have marked the emergence of Darrun Hilliard as a top BIG EAST performer the past two seasons, the one that has most shaped his view of what it means to lead others came on a gloomier night.
It took place in the shadow of what had been an unsettling freshman season of 2011-12 for Hilliard and his mates. A promising 4-0 start that year turned into a tough slog as an exceptionally young roster of Wildcats grappled to compete in the BIG EAST. Hilliard's individual path mirrored that of the unit as a whole - some glowing early efforts were overshadowed by harder times in league play.
After an introspective off-season that featured a renewed focus on the program's core values, VU jumped out to another encouraging 3-0 start in '12-13 that included wins over Marshall and Purdue. After a setback to Alabama at Madison Square Garden on what were assuredly tired legs owed to an overtime win a night earlier, the `Cats returned to the Pavilion on Nov. 20, seemingly rested, and ready to resume their ascent.
What transpired was something much different than anticipated. Columbia pulled away in the second half for a 75-57 victory.
Mouphtaou Yarou was the senior on duty then and, as his roommate, Hilliard was afforded a front row seat as the 6-10 forward assessed what had happened and how to respond moving forward.
"Seeing what he went through after that game was a wakeup call," recalled Hilliard on a late spring afternoon recently in the Davis Center cinema. "It was at that time that I learned the most from him. He was down - we all were - but you saw his true character. He stuck with all of the guys and we got a little bit better every day. You see where it landed us that year: we got back to the (NCAA) Tournament.
"That was a great example to me - Mouph bounced back and that's a great quality for a leader to have."
Serving as a beacon for younger teammates comes with the territory for a Villanova senior guard of Hilliard's stature. This native of Bethlehem, Pa., has charted a steady climb in each of his three seasons as a Wildcat. In 2013-14 he shared the BIG EAST Most Improved player award with his teammate, Daniel Ochefu, and was also named second team Philadelphia Big Five.
That arc is owed to any number of factors but atop the list is the affable senior's work ethic. Even during a difficult freshman season, the 6-6 lefthander has made the Davis Center practice court a second home.
"I still feel like I'm kind of young," explains Hilliard, 21. "I'm young for my grade and I think that's a big part of it. My body hasn't peaked yet and I can still get a lot smarter thinking the game of basketball. That's just a testament to God. Just having that quality allows me to become more consistent while playing this game."
Part of Hilliard's development has come through his work with strength coach John Shackleton. Though Hilliard's basketball skill level and IQ were high when he enrolled, his thin frame was less ready for the rigors of the physical nature of the game at this level. Hours spent in the weight room have bolstered that body and allow Hilliard to log heavy minutes effectively in a conference long known for its grit.
"That's been a big part of (the growth)," he states. "I was young and kind of frail when I came to Villanova."
There is also a mental part to the equation that goes beyond the number of pounds an athlete is able to bench press.
"I was young-minded too," Hilliard stated. "The strength program and Coach (Jay) Wright taught me what it took to become a man and helped me to grow up. It all helped me to handle the rigors of the Big East, the meetings, everything. Experience is now on my side."
Two years of diligence culminated in a special 2013-14 outing that saw the Wildcats move from outside the Top 25 in the pre-season to No. 3 in both national polls by the time the BIG EAST Tournament got underway. Villanova established a new school record for regular season wins (28) and claimed its first outright BIG EAST regular season championship since Ronald Reagan's presidency (1982).
The campaign ended in the third round of the NCAA Tournament when champion Connecticut ousted the Wildcats 77-65 in Buffalo, N.Y. This marked the fifth time in the last 10 seasons VU was eliminated by the eventual champion.
"Looking back on it, it was a great year," Hilliard said. "It ended before we wanted it to, and that hurt. We also know that we brought it every night. We didn't reach the ultimate goal but we also know that only one team can do that. We won the Big East championship and our seniors went out with a bang.
"It's a new season now. We can't base this season off of last season. We are a totally different team. We don't know how guys are going to develop and we have to fill Tahj (James Bell), Tony (Chennault) and Nick (McMahon)'s roles. I think we can have a good year and hopefully a better tournament. But to get there, we have to work hard every day."
For this next chapter of Villanova Basketball, Hilliard figures to be out front alongside fellow returning starters Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. And while the leadership component is something of a new fit for him, the guard believes he has been well schooled, not just by his coaches but by former teammates like Yarou.
"I've learned a lot from those guys," stated Hilliard. "With James Bell, he would get down on himself at times but would always pick himself up. He was confident enough to be able to bounce back the next play. Guys like Mouph (Yarou), Maalik (Wayns) and (Dominic) Cheek kind of molded me. In their own way, each of them gave me a great lesson and I learned from that."
The Wildcats returned after a break of approximately three weeks following final exams in May to begin the first session of summer school. Hilliard, as is his wont, has been in the Davis Center often and usually has his pals alongside.
"The main focus of my summer is to be a better leader," Hilliard stated. "I want to be doing things for the young guys that were done for me."
Hilliard paid close attention to his older friends and in that sense is well-prepared for this next step. His on-court diligence is a given and an expanding skill set which includes the ability to defend and finish near the rim gives him credibility that goes beyond mere time served.
In 2013-14, his scoring average rose to a career-high 14.3 ppg and he moved into the school's 1,000th point club in the NCAA Tournament game against Connecticut (1,010 total points). He connected on .414 of his attempts from beyond the 3-point arc as a junior, which ranked fourth in the BIG EAST, and was at his best in the homestretch of the regular season as Villanova worked to lock up its conference crown.
But like Bell and Yarou before him, Hilliard has an acute understanding of the limits of individual scoring prowess. The importance of intangible details was reinforced in that disappointing freshman campaign that is still fresh in his mind.
"That's definitely motivation," stated Hilliard.
Basketball seasons at the highest levels of the sport tend to offer unanticipated challenges even for those who enter the year highly regarded. Hilliard may have begun his Villanova career without much of a national profile but that could soon change. As a tentative rookie he watched his minutes shrink as a youthful roster discovered what it took to compete in the BIG EAST. In year two, he became a starter and played a key part in the revival that led to an NCAA berth and a subsequent season of 29 victories that delivered VU back to the Top 10 in '13-14.
The final act awaits and Hilliard stands ready. Already he has carved a niche for himself within the BIG EAST and further progression could open more doorways. The possibilities are endless for a gifted and versatile athlete.
His most essential contribution, though, won't be tabulated in points or assists. Rather it will be made behind closed doors, in dorm rooms and locker rooms, where he and his fellow veterans will share their experiences to help point the way for a unit that figures to face an element this group has yet to confront as collegians: pre-season expectations.
When the tough times do come, Hilliard knows exactly where he will look for inspiration: to a disappointing night of basketball in 2012 and a teammate who knew what it means to remain positive in a dark hour.