Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
When he first set foot on the campus of Villanova University a year ago, Ty Johnson couldn’t have imagined he would be in the position he is today.
Doubtless, neither could the Wildcats.
After a freshman campaign during which he averaged 17.7 minutes per game for a Wildcats squad that matched a program high with 19 losses, Johnson enters the 2012-13 season as one of the biggest keys to a turnaround for which everyone associated with the school is do desperate. Thanks to the departures of Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, who forewent their final year of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft, Johnson steps into the limelight as the leader of a backcourt short on experience but long on talent. The promotion may not exactly have been earned, but the Plainfield, New Jersey native is eager to prove he’s ready for the responsibilities it carries.
“I’m in this position with Maalik leaving and with Dominic Cheek leaving, but I’m coming back as an underclassmen and knowing what it takes to be a Villanova player,” Johnson told CoBL. “I’m just coming in as a leader and trying to lead this team, listening to coach, buying in to everything that he offers here, and just getting those newcomers to buy in to what we do here.”
“Those newcomers” are Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault and incoming freshman Ryan Arcidiacono. Chennault, a product of Neumann-Goretti, started every game for the Demon Deacons a year ago and has two seasons of ACC competition on his resume. Arcidiacono, meanwhile, is a prized recruit out of Neshaminy High School. Both, like Johnson, are point guards. And both figure to see plenty of playing time in the upcoming season, so Johnson knows he has his work cut out for him to carve out a significant role in coach Jay Wright’s backcourt. The way he sees it, that’s a good problem to have.
“There are a lot of good guards here, but everyone is competitive,” Johnson said. ”At the end of the day, everyone wants to be this and be that, but we’re making ourselves better. It’s not just about one person; it’s about all of us. Competing every day in practice, going hard and playing hard, hopefully the end result is you get the win. But it’s not all about the win; it’s building that brotherhood. Once you compete, you gain more respect, and with that respect is when guys come together. The competition this summer has been great. Everybody is playing hard, working hard, and going at each other.”
Johnson and his counterparts have taken the Haverford College courts by storm this summer, giving Wildcat fans a glimpse of the future with a pair of deadly combinations in the Delco Pro-Am. While Chennault and Arcidiacono have joined forces with senior forward and captain Mouphtaou Yarou on Team Blue, Johnson’s Team White running mate has been Rice transfer Dylan Ennis.
Ennis will sit out the 2012-13 season, but the native of Canada averaged 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists for the Owls a year ago and will only add to the Wildcats’ embarrassment of riches when he becomes eligible. While the chemistry they develop this summer won’t be on display for another year, Johnson said he has taken the Delco Pro-Am as an opportunity to showcase his new leadership role by acting as a mentor to Ennis and embodying a strong work ethic for his teammates.
“What I’ve done this summer is just work on everything,” Johnson said. “I’m never satisfied. I’m hungry, but always humbled about things. I’m fully healthy now and in attack mode. Just being in attack mode, being there for my teammates, getting out in transition, and mostly just being a leader. Once you be a leader and you’ve got guys that want to play with you, it feels better for you and your teammates.”
After stumbling through a 13-19 season -easily the worst in Wright’s 11 on the Main Line- and losing a pair of starters to the NBA Draft, Villanova needs leaders more than ever. Yarou and frontcourt mate Maurice Sutton are the Wildcats’ only seniors, and with Johnson and Darrun Hilliard as the only guards with a year of service in the program, Johnson is now one perhaps out of necessity more than anything else.
Still, the former high school quarterback is confident that the ability, as well as the preparation, are there. The lanky Johnson flashed some of his potential in an overtime loss to Georgetown in February, orchestrating a 14-point, 5-rebound, 6-assist performance. At 6-foot-3, Johnson has the length and quickness to be a superb defender, and is already the Wildcats’ best free-throw shooter at just under 88 percent.
And in addition to a grueling offseason regiment, Johnson said that the experience of being around Wayns for a full season, and assuming full-time point guard duties when he was injured for an extended stretch of games, will be invaluable pieces of momentum to carry into the upcoming campaign.
“It was a lot of great experiences with him being here,” Johnson said of his former mentor. “I had another guy in practice who I knew was going to push me and he knew I was going to push him. He’s a good player, and I learned a lot from him.
“Now, with him not here, now I step into another role. He showed me and he taught me some things, but now I’ve got it, and I’m just learning to be more vocal and more of a leader. That carries over to this year, knowing that I went through a full year of Villanova basketball, playing in the Big East, playing the point guard, and knowing what to expect from your coaches, your teammates and yourself. Now I’m really excited to bring it into this season.”
Johnson has only spent one full year at Villanova, but he doesn’t need to be reminded of the legacy of standout guards he’s expected to continue. Nor does he need to be told the legends of past Wildcat glory. They’re omnipresent, always with this current class of Wildcats, motivating them to bring back those great moments even though- or perhaps because- none of them were there to experience them.
“There’s a lot of pride playing for Villanova and putting that jersey on,” Johnson told CoBL. “You have a lot of greats that came before you…who came through this program and wore that jersey with pride. So not to come out and play hard for what they created here would be a failure not just for ourselves but our team as well.”
That they played hard can’t be called into question, but last year was undoubtedly a failure even when viewed from outside the lens of Villanova’s lofty standards. The Wildcats’ struggles hold an interesting place in the consciousness of this year’s class. The current group of Wildcats is adamant that they’ll turn the corner and keep the memory of the past season firmly in the past.
Still, the energy around their Davis Center practice facility is different these days. Johnson and the rest of Wright’s squad has the sting of a rare disappointing season to push them now. And even though he couldn’t have expected to be in this position a year ago, Johnson is prepared to play a major part in revitalizing Villanova basketball.
“I think it’s a different feel for this year coming up,” he said. “We didn’t have the best year last year, but last year’s over with. We’re looking at this year and thinking about how we’re going to build and start over, how we’re going to get back to winning. It all starts with steps. You have to work hard, weight train hard, build chemistry, do everything together. I feel like if you do all of those things, at the end of the day everything that you’ve been working hard for will show up on the court.
We’re really hungry for the season to come, but we’re also being humble. We’re not trying to say we’re going to be this or we’re going to be that. We’re just going to come out, play hard, and play how Villanova basketball players do. Whatever happens, happens.”