July 26, 2013
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, visits with guard Tony Chennault as he reflects upon his first year as a Wildcat.
In the mind's eye, homecomings are an endless rebirth of happy moments from years gone by.
In reality, though, they are often more complicated than that, a swirl of highs and lows that can often surprise those experiencing them for the first time.
Tony Chennault had, of course, known about returns from afar. After a stellar career at Neumann-Goretti High School in his native Philadelphia, the 6-2 guard had signed his national letter of intent at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Like any college student away from home, he had made treks back to the Delaware Valley for holidays and breaks from school.
But when Chennault elected to transfer from Wake in the spring of 2012, he decided to make his homecoming a permanent one. His mother, Crystal Morton, faced some health issues and her son felt it important that he be nearer his family to assist in whatever way he could. After studying his options, Chennault picked Villanova.
By the time the first session of summer school 2012 began, Chennault was a member of the Nova Nation, absorbing every nuance he could of what it took to be a Wildcat guard. Before the month of June was complete, though, Chennault was processing the shocking news that an older brother to whom he was very close, Mike Jay, had died tragically in Philadelphia.
Chennault confronted the tragedy stoically. He pressed on with basketball, emerging as a dependable alternative for coach Jay Wright and his staff over the course of a 2012-13 campaign that saw the `Cats return to the NCAA Tournament. A slow start gave way to steady play over the latter part of the BIG EAST season, particularly at the defensive end. If his offensive production wasn't what he had hoped for (3.6 ppg), he nonetheless was valued by his teammates and coaches for his leadership and superior defensive work.
That Chennault had persevered to complete a productive year suggested to those on the outside that all had fallen into place for him. Except the man at the center of it wasn't so sure about that. In early April, he announced that he planned to transfer from Villanova to another university and complete his college career elsewhere.
"Sometimes, when you think so much about things, you have to step back and look at it from a different perspective," says Chennault now. "It was a situation where I was probably over thinking things at first."
Among elite athletes there is generally ample berth given to an individual's personal dreams and goals. Should a teammate elect to declare for the National Basketball Association draft or transfer to another program, hard feelings in the locker room are rare. There is a shared bond in the struggle to be the best each individual can be and few presume to tell another what's best for their future.
In this case, though, Chennault's teammates were, if nothing else, determined to make sure that he understood his contributions internally were valued deeply. Several Wildcats spoke to Chennault and shared that they too had to work through early low points here.
"There is a brotherhood on this team," Chennault states. "I have great relationships with people like Mouph (Mouphtaou Yarou), Tahj (James Bell) and JP (JayVaughn Pinkston) and they reminded me that their first years weren't exactly easy for them. They all had their adversity to get through.
"I had to look at it like I was basically just a freshman in this system last year even though my classification was a junior. I had to sit back and tell myself that this was a learning experience for me and that if I keep working hard, keep getting better, I think a lot of positives can happen for me and I can help make us a better team."
Although he adapted well to Villanova, Chennault acknowledges the loss of his brother was never far from this thoughts.
"At times, it weighed on me," he states. "It's a sad incident that you think about often. But at the end of the day I had to put it behind me. That was the hardest thing during the season - putting that behind me. That definitely weighed on me."
Then too there was the basketball side of the equation - as a point guard, he needed to be a quarterback and the Wildcats' approach was markedly different from the style employed at Wake Forest. Habits that had become almost second nature in his first two college seasons needed to be altered quickly.
"The main thing was the off the court issues I was going through," he states, "and just not being the player that you know you can be, but you just can't be it right now because you are trying to learn new concepts.
"My teammates were very welcoming. They never put me down or anything like that. They constantly encouraged me and kept me positive. You don't always find that."
As he pondered his future in April, those memories were important to him. So too was a message Wright repeats often to his squad - "everyone here is on his own journey."
"This year, I'm just trying to become a better person," he explains. "When you are working on becoming a better person, you have to focus on being the best you and stop letting other people define what success should be for you. You know what you have had to overcome - nobody else should be able to tell you what success is for you."
Chennault is the first to admit that it took him some time to adjust to the responsibilities he inherited as a Villanova guard.
"At first I wasn't comfortable at all," he recalls. "There were a lot of times when I would watch film I would look so indecisive out there. I didn't really know my role on the team and I was just trying to find my identity within this team. As the season went on and I started to play more with my teammates, I just started feeling more comfortable."
The slow pace of progress in his third year of eligibility didn't always sit well in the mind of a former Top 100 guard.
"Sometimes, you want immediate results and you might see baby steps," he notes. "No competitor likes that. You start telling yourself, `I should be here.' But it just doesn't work that way at this level. You just have to have the maturity to understand that."
Chennault played a key role in some of the Wildcats' most notable upsets, including the wins over No. 5 Louisville and Georgetown. He also contributed eight points to a BIG EAST Tournament victory over St. John's that helped cement the NCAA berth. Thus the news that he would pursue a transfer caught most observers off guard.
"I never really wanted to leave," he says. "The relationships we have on our team - we really are like brothers. When I was thinking about leaving, I was still hanging out with the guys. We would be out and the conversation would just come up - `yo, what you doing?' Then when you make the announcement you hear about teammates going to the coaches, it lets you know that you are wanted. If you're any athlete or any person, you just want to feel wanted where you are."
One of his most notable advocates was none other than Pinkston. The forward accompanied Chennault when he went to see Wright to state his desire to remain a Wildcat.
"No one would think that JayVaughn could convince somebody," Chennault states. "We come from similar situations as far as our own lives. We have a lot in common. We both understand the situation and what it means for us to be at this level, to get a college education and hopefully some day, we'll be blessed enough to play in the NBA or overseas. We can relate to one another."
Chennault never was far away - he continued to live on campus, attend spring classes and work out in the Davis Center as he mulled the transfer - so there was little to alter when he decided to remain a Wildcat. He and Bell will be the only scholarship seniors in 2013-14 and Chennault will compete for minutes in the backcourt alongside Ryan Arcidiacono, the now eligible Dylan Ennis, Darrun Hilliard, and freshman Josh Hart.
"Sometimes, if you say you want to leave a program, coaches hold grudges," Chennault notes. "No coaches here hold any grudges. We've all put it behind us and moved forward."
Wright likes to use the term "playing with a clear mind" and that is the state Chennault is aiming for. He vows not to let the expectations of others intrude as he moves ahead in his basketball career.
"I just stopped caring about how everyone was saying I was playing," he explains. "I stopped caring about certain things people say about what you need to be doing. I'm trying to keep my circle (of friends) smaller and trying to be the best Tony Chennault I can be. I can't be Randy Foye or Allan Ray or anyone else. I can just be the best me. If that's good enough, it's good enough."
Homecomings can be complicated.
Tony Chennault appreciates that now. But as he enters into the second year of this one, he does so wiser in the hard lessons life teaches and better prepared for its challenges.