Oct. 5, 2012
This edition of the Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, features a look at another one of Villanova Basketball's incoming freshmen, forward Daniel Ochefu.
In Mouphtaou Yarou, the Villanova Wildcats feature an athlete who transitioned from a youth soccer standout in his native West African nation of Benin into a coveted prospect on the hardwood after immigrating to the United States while in high school.
His new protégé, freshman Daniel Ocheu, says he once considered the exact opposite approach. There was a time when the native of Baltimore thought that his athletic future might lay not on the courts, but on the soccer pitch.
As a middle school student in Maryland, Ochefu sampled both basketball and soccer. When he reached the age of 12, his parents, Hassan and Elizabeth Ochefu - pronounced Oh-CHAY-fu - decided to relocate their family, which also includes two girls and another boy, to Lagos, Nigeria. There were deeply family roots in the African nation and the parents felt it important that their children have an understanding of where they came from and have a chance to be near other family members.
"We were over there to see our roots and meet more of our family," says Ochefu.
This was more than merely a visit. The family spent more than two years in Nigeria.
"It was different," states Ochefu now. "The academics were sped up and there really wasn't much basketball around so I was playing soccer a lot more. I would only play basketball maybe once a month."
Ochefu found success as a midfielder in soccer and gave some thought to leaving basketball behind. But the tug of hoops never quite left him and when the family returned to the United States, the 14-year old discovered how much he had missed America and basketball.
"It was fun in Nigeria - I liked it," he says. "But it was great to be back in the United States."
During the summer after his return from Nigeria, Ochefu's game was raw but there were apparent tools, not the least of which was his height. One of those that took notice was Seth Berger, the head basketball coach at the Westtown School, in West Chester, Pa. Ochefu paid the campus of the boarding school a visit with his parents.
"They talked to us about how athletics and academics blended," Ochefu states. "Academics are very important to me and my family and it was also a place where I could grow as an athlete."
It was Berger who impressed upon a young Ochefu the variety of options his unique skill set - size, quick feet, and strength - might offer him on the basketball court.
"Coach Berger told me that I had a great talent," recalls Ochefu, "and that if I worked hard, it could present me with an opportunity in basketball. After a few months there, I could see the improvement we had made in that short time and felt like I should chase the dream."
Hassan Ochefu stands 6-6 and has a brother who is 6-8 so it was clear that genetics were likely to be on the youngster's side. Ochefu set about soaking in all he could from Berger while striving to maintain his family's academic standards. The hours were often long but there was no grumbling for a teenager who seemed to grasp the endless possibilities before him.
Of course, it didn't take long for college coaches to take note of those same possibilities. By the end of his freshman year, Ochefu had received his first piece of correspondence from Notre Dame. A year later the intensity of the interest had been raised several notches.
"My coach and my parents did a good job of managing the process so it didn't get too out of control," he says.
One challenge for big men who begin to develop a level of notoriety is the lengths to which opponents will go to slow them. Ochefu learned what it was like to be the focus of sagging zones and assorted junk defenses designed to keep him in check.
"It can become frustrating if you let it," he says. "The one thing that always helped me is that I had great teammates. We had great shooters on the team and everyone chipped in to make it easier on me."
As he began to parse the list of college possibilities, Ochefu focused on certain elements.
"I was really big on the coaching staffs," he states. "I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page with what I wanted to do moving forward and what they were trying to do with their programs. I also wanted to go to a good school in case basketball doesn't work out, so that I will have something to fall back on."
Villanova graded well on both measures.
"The coaching staff is great, works well together and is very professional in how they do things," noted Ochefu. "When I came here, I liked the players too - we had some good conversations. The Villanova School of Business was another attraction for me because it's a great education and is ranked in the top 10 in the country. The network that is available to Villanova graduates is outstanding."
The process of selection came to a close in March 2011 when Ochefu made a verbal commitment to attend Villanova after averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds an outing that season for Westtown.
"I thought (recruiting) might get a little out of hand if I had gone through the summer (of 2011) uncommitted," he says.
Ochefu went on to enjoy another strong basketball season at Westtown as a senior. He later elected to withdraw from Westtown in May and received his high school diploma from nearby Downingtown East High School.
"There was a disciplinary issue at Westtown that I got caught up in," states Ochefu. "My family and I thought it would be best for me to withdraw and finish up at Downingtown East."
Ochefu earned his diploma and arrived at Villanova for summer classes in July. His assimilation has been a smooth one as the team's two elder statesmen, seniors Yarou and Maurice Sutton, have spent ample time demonstrating to the new big man on campus the Villanova way.
"Mouph was my roommate and he did a great job in showing me how to balance academics and the basketball," says Ochefu. "Mouph and Mo are big guys who have been through the Big East battles so I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from them."
The specter of the season opener on Nov. 9 against UDC is exciting, to be sure, and does cross Ochefu's mind when the hour is late and he is alone with his thoughts. But in the light of day, he prefers to keep his goals anchored to the present.
"It's all about playing hard," he says.
These days, thoughts of life in the midfield of a soccer pitch are as far away as Lagos.
Ochefu is now a confirmed citizen of the low box and the Nova Nation is only too eager to see him develop an identity of his own making in the area near the basket.