Nova Notebook: Yarou Learning to Feel at Home at Villanova
Sept. 18, 2009
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, this week turns its attention to freshman forward Mouphtaou Yarou.
He lives today in a frenetic environment that would have been hard for him to fathom as recently as two short years ago. Back then, he was a novice basketball player new to the United States seeking only to convince someone that he was worthy of a college scholarship. Today, he is quite literally the centerpiece of a recruiting haul ranked among the nation's best by all the major scouting services.
"It is," notes Mouphtaou Yarou, "very different."
Indeed, for this young man from the republic of Benin in central Africa the past 26 months have been more than just a whirlwind. In that span he has gone from an anonymous exchange student to a coveted 6-10 forward viewed as one of the impact players in his class. He is certain to be an object of curiosity for fans and opposing coaches alike as he gets set to make his college debut in November.
Yet for all of that, the values he learned from his large family - he is one of 13 children - fit well in his new environment. From his earliest days, his parents - Louis Yarou and Awaou Bawa Yarou, and grandparents stressed education. Sports were an acceptable diversion but were not to be placed ahead of academics.
"Even now, when I call home my parents want to know about my classes and how I am doing in them," he states. "We talk about my studies much more than we do about basketball."
Benin is a former French colony nestled between Nigeria and Togo on the western coast of Africa. When asked to describe his homeland Yarou is succinct: "my country is a poor country but there is no war." As he grew, Yarou spoke French along with four dialects native to his country. He later added English to his repertoire.
Soccer was the passion of his countrymen and that is the sport to which Yarou originally gravitated. But then he always sensed that he might not have a future in the game in spite of his enjoyment of it. He was a forward with remarkably quick feet for a large man who by the age of 12 had been considered for a scholarship to a French sports academy, though his parents decided against that option.
"I was a good player," he says with a smile, "but I was too big for soccer."
The growth spurt Yarou experienced as he became a teenager was hardly unexpected. His brothers are tall men and one family member stands 7-0. Still, Yarou had only dabbled in basketball at the urging of his brothers before starting to pay more attention to it as he began high school. He had his doubts about the game but his brother Kader, a 6-11 center who had pursued a basketball career in Paris at the age of 16 before being slowed by injury, saw enough to mention him to an American friend Chris Timba. Together they explored the options in the U.S. and secured a student visa for "Mouph", as he his known to friends, to matriculate in the states.
Yarou agreed to do so, though he had reservations.
"It was a tough decision," he says now.
The results have been startling. In an age where players, particularly big men, are scouted as seventh and eighth graders, Yarou was a throwback, an honest to goodness revelation only one year away from college. His profile literally exploded in the summer of 2008 as he wowed coaches on the summer AAU circuit after a year at Massanutten (Va.) Military Academy. They loved his footwork, smooth shooting touch, and willingness to play the role of a classic low-post threat.
The new attention took a little getting used to for the subject of it all.
"It was a little embarrassing at times," he says.
In the end, he focused on schools that could satisfy both his desire to excel in basketball and academics.
"I had people tell me that Villanova is a guard school," he says. "But this is where I wanted to be."
Prior to his senior year, Yarou transferred to Montrose Christian Academy, which plays a national schedule and is coached by Stu Vetter. In 2008-09 he did nothing to disappoint those who raved about his potential, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots per game for one of the nation's premiere squads and gaining invitations to the prestigious Jordan game at Madison Square Garden and the Capitol Classic, where he was named most valuable player. Among his prep school teammates at Montrose was fellow Villanova freshman Isaiah Armwood.
Now, for the third time in three years, Yarou is transitioning to a new environment. There are challenges to be sure, but he is content and making strides on and off the court. He's more comfortable with speaking English since coming to the country and for that he credits a former teammate, Johann Mpondo at Massanutten who went on to play at the University of New Orleans after emigrating from Cameroon.
"When I didn't understand something, he would explain it to me in French," he says. "But we always spoke English so that would help me learn it."
Yarou is an excellent student who says his transition in the classroom has been smooth. The schools he attended in Benin stressed math and sciences and he is considering pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, though he has recently begun to think more about Villanova's School of Business after speaking at length with former Wildcat basketball player Frank Tchuisi, who remains on campus in graduate school.
"Frank helps me a lot," he says.
Tchuisi, a four-year Wildcat who like Yarou, came to the United States as a teenager to attend prep school, understands the dynamics involved in such transition better than most.
"You are going to go through times when you are homesick and miss your family," Tchuisi says. "At those times, you learn to rely on your teammates, your coaches and your friends at Villanova. They become your family here. I think he appreciates that.
"We are like brothers," he says simply.
Together they are about to embark on a new journey, one both exciting and thoroughly unlike anything Yarou might have envisioned just a few short years ago.