Dec. 18, 2012
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, connects with sophomore guard Achraf Yacoubou as we head towards the holiday season.
To all who leave home to begin college life, there are adjustments to be made.
Most are enjoying a new sense of freedom outside the neighborhood that they know best. Fresh academic challenges await too, as do new relationships with classmates and professors. Home cooked meals are generally reserved for the holidays.
For the student-athlete, there is an additional layer of newness to it all. Along with the daily challenges of college life, the athlete must also confront an elevated level of competition where his or her rivals are now stronger, faster and more experienced than those they encountered in high school.
Achraf Yacoubou is one year removed from that sometimes bumpy transition. His case was not unusual - it came with a few highs, some lows and a general sense of trying to find his bearings in a fast-moving new endeavor. It was all fresh terrain to a guard who had known nothing but success at Long Island Lutheran High School, where he was named Gatorade New York State Player of the Year as a senior in 2011.
"Ash played in a system in high school that was pretty much the exact opposite of what we do here," stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright. "It was very successful and it was geared to him. When he came to us, he had to adapt to a whole new way of doing things. It wasn't a matter of selfishness at all - Ash is a great teammate - but it was an adjustment that took time."
A year removed from it all, the native of the Bronx, N.Y., looks back and can appreciate that his learning curve may have been a grade or two steeper than others.
"There were some things I had to get used to," Yacoubou says. "Some of the team concepts we use, press breaks, certain plays we run and chinning it when we pick up a loose ball were new to me. I wasn't overwhelmed but it was a lot of stuff. It took me some time to learn it and feel comfortable with it.
"I think I'm starting to get it now."
The results early in the season back that assessment up. Yacoubou notched a career-high in points (13) in a 68-55 win over Penn at the Palestra on Dec. 8 and then followed that with a nine point, seven rebound effort in the 65-61 triumph over Saint Joseph's at the Pavilion three nights later. He added to the surge with seven rebounds in a 75-65 win over Delaware.
"No one in our locker room is surprised by it," stated Wright of Yacoubou. "We have seen Ash do that in practice. Now that he is more comfortable in our system, we're starting to see more of that in games."
Yacoubou's journey to Villanova took him from the Bronx to a year of prep school at the American Christian School before landing at Long Island Lutheran on the North Shore of Long Island. Yacoubou thrived there and earned himself a niche as a coveted prospect. Connecticut and Kentucky were in the mix early before he ultimately committed to Villanova. When he reached the Main Line, Yacoubou quickly displayed an impressive work ethic. The 6-4 guard is a dedicated student of the game, often spending extra time working on his jump shot on the Davis Center practice court. Yet for all of his passion, there wasn't much playing time to be had in the backcourt in 2011-12 with juniors Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek on the scene.
Over the course of the '11-12 campaign, Yacoubou did earn three starting assignments and he scored eight points off the bench in the BIG EAST opener at Marquette on New Year's Day. At season's end he had logged an average of 10.6 minutes per outing in 26 games and connected on .328 of his field goal attempts and .262 of his tries from beyond the 3-point arc. What's more, it all came in a season when the Wildcats struggled, winning 13 of 32 games.
"I was bothered by it at first," stated Yacoubou of his first college season, "but the way I took it, is that it was going to make me stronger and make us stronger as a team. We learned from it and we would use that to make the seasons to come better.
"The first step is working hard and doing everything Coach wants us to do. If we do that, everything will take care of itself."
Yacoubou kept his focus on the big picture on nights when minutes did not come his way.
"It was a challenge," said Yacoubou, "but I never got discouraged. I know I'm a good player but I have to keep getting better. I just try to be ready whenever Coach calls my number."
Effort has never been a question and that is most apparent at the defensive end. Part of the adjustment, though, was absorbing the nuances of team defense at the college level - when to switch, when to hedge, the need for constant communication among the five players on the floor. Those are areas in which Yacoubou has made strides in year two.
"I feel like I'm really getting better in my defense," he says. "I really take pride in that and I just know that if I'm pressuring the ball, my teammate has my back. We practice that every day and have been working on that since the spring. Even though we haven't been together for years, we have been together for a little while and everyone has a good feel for where we need to be."
As for his recent offensive outburst, there is no simple formula. Yacoubou was a scorer in high school who has toiled diligently to become a more consistent shooter from long range. He's also spent hours on his ballhandling so that there are other ways to contribute points. Against Vanderbilt, he used a pretty rainbow jumper from 10 feet away along the baseline to score a key second half basket and that was not part of his repertoire a year ago.
Yacoubou's increased contributions have helped Villanova's bench become a key component in its arsenal. In the win over Saint Joseph's, the Wildcats' reserves outscored the Hawks' bench 24-3 led by JayVaughn Pinkston (12 points) and Yacoubou (nine). What's more, the reliability of those reserves - which also includes Tony Chennault and Daniel Ochefu - have helped VU emerge victorious in tight battles thus far with Marshall, Purdue, and Saint Joseph's.
Another bonus is that Yacoubou has become a much more substantial factor on the boards. He collected 13 in those back-to-back Philadelphia Big Five wins and has kept possessions alive for the `Cats with his efforts on the offensive glass.
"Rebounding is a part of being a Villanova guard," he says. "I take pride in that."
With a full complement of 18 BIG EAST games on tap in January and February, Yacoubou understands there is much more to do. The recent success is nice but Yacoubou is a rock solid, nose-to-the-grindstone type - his answer to most challenges usually comes back to a direct approach.
"We've just got to keep working every day to get better," Yacoubou states.
The native of the Bronx practices what he preaches. And after three semesters on the Villanova campus, the results of that grit have begun to show.