July 2, 2013
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, takes a look at forward Daniel Ochefu as he looks ahead to his sophomore year at Villanova.
His daily work complete, Daniel Ochefu pauses to take a seat on a bench near the front of the Davis Center. As he discusses how his basketball life has unfolded in the 12 months since he arrived at Villanova, he does so covered in sweat, only moments removed from a workout with his teammates on the practice floor inside the Davis Center.
That this conversation takes place alongside the driveway that separates the Davis Center and the Pavilion seems fitting too. For Ochefu hopes the long hours he has spent lifting weights, shooting free throws, and refining his footwork inside the practice facility will pay dividends on game nights under the Pavilion roof in 2013-14.
As a freshman, Ochefu was very much the apprentice inside, following the lead of seniors Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton. Now, as a new season beckons, he is preparing to step front and center as the only returning Wildcat taller than 6-7.
"I really learned about the physicality of the college game," said Ochefu of a campaign which saw him average 3.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per outing while appearing in each of Villanova's 34 contests. "Playing against guys like Mouph and Tahj (James Bell) every day in practice really helped. It's such a physical game in the Big East."
At 6-11 and 245 pounds, Ochefu was not unfamiliar with the battles for position that come with the territory in the painted area. It's just that at the college level he found himself going toe-to-toe with bodies his own size, which wasn't always the case during his prep days at the Westtown School.
"It wasn't an adjustment to play hard but I learned more about how important it is to play hard every second you are out there," Ochefu said. "In high school, I was the biggest guy out there. I could get away with just shooting the ball over everyone. But here I see people who are just as big as I am or even bigger. If I'm not playing hard all the time, I am going to get exposed."
Ochefu was afforded a luxury that not all incoming newcomers of note are. He was able to serve as Yarou's understudy for most of the season, aside from an 11-game stretch in January and February where he started alongside him. To his credit, Ochefu, a product of Baltimore, embraced the opportunity to learn from more experienced teammates while finding his own path even though it may have kept a lid on his game minutes (he averaged 17.5 mpg).
"The biggest thing I learned from Mouph and Mo is to just keep persevering, no matter what challenge we may have had in practice or off the court," Ochefu notes. "We want to have a good attitude, regardless of what happened, good or bad."
The Wildcats returned to the NCAA Tournament on the strength of a 20-14 record that included three victories over teams ranked in the top five of both major polls - Louisville (Jan. 22), Syracuse (Jan. 26) and Georgetown (March 5).
"I thought at the beginning of the year we had a lot of new pieces so we were still trying to figure ourselves out," he notes. "The coaches did a great job working on our chemistry. As the year went on, it got better and better."
Of course, Yarou and Sutton have moved on, if not yet physically - both have been present in recent weeks working out at Villanova while preparing for their pro careers - surely enough as factors on the court in '13-14. Ochefu figures to be a central part of the Wildcats' interior defense and it is expected that he will be a huge part of a lineup that lacks the kind of size it has featured the past few seasons.
In one sense he will be asked to accept the mantle of his mentor, Yarou, especially in the areas of guarding opposing big men and rebounding.
"I have big shoes to fill," stated Ochefu. "Mouph has a great attitude and is such a good rebounder. That's one of the things I have been working on in the off-season so that I can hopefully step up and do more.
"Lately, Mouph's been telling me just to be aggressive - to play my game and play hard every moment I am on the court."
All involved, from the coaching staff to Ochefu himself, understand that Ochefu's strengths are not identical to his predecessor's. He brings a knack for passing that is uncommon for a man of his size and that could allow him to make plays for others, especially from the high post. He also brings a knack for shot-blocking and finishing around the rim that brought crowds at the Pavilion to its feet on several occasions last winter.
So how does Ochefu assess his progress in his freshman season? "Overall, I thought it was a decent year," he said. "There were some high points and some low points."
At season's end, head coach Jay Wright and his staff map out off-season plans for each of the returning Wildcats. In Ochefu's case, there is a priority being placed on his post-game and the footwork that can make him effective there. He's also spent quite a bit of time in the gym working on his free throw stroke - Ochefu connected on just .483 of his free throw attempts.
"I'm still shooting 100 (free throws) a day," he stated. "It's getting a lot better. It's a matter of getting my rhythm down and getting comfortable."
The daily work in the laboratory is ongoing in the months when many of his classmates have returned home. Ochefu and his teammates train in the weight room with strength coach John Shackleton, participate in the limited number of team workouts permitted under NCAA regulations, and take part in open gym sessions. The daily tasks often begin before 7 a.m. - no time for sleeping in the quest to get better.
"Coach always tells us," notes Ochefu, "that successful people make habits of doing things unsuccessful people don't like doing. I don't think anyone likes getting up early so if we are used to doing that it can give us an edge."
There is also a slate of summer classes to deal with too.
As the calendar turns to July, the new season remains a distant object on the horizon. But Ochefu knows well the effort he puts forth today will benefit him when the action heats up in November.
He also appreciates that his role is likely to be different in the new year.
No longer will he be the newcomer expected simply to lend a hand. Instead, it will be he who is relied upon to provide dependable play on the interior.
"I'm looking forward to this," he stated. "You put in the hard work in the summer as a team so that we can be ready when the season gets here."
With that, Ochefu is on his way. He's on his way back inside the lobby of the Davis Center en route to the locker room. Time to get cleaned up and enjoy some well earned downtime. Tomorrow is another day to get better.