Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Starting a freshman at point guard and attempting to mold familiar faces into unfamiliar roles, Villanova head coach Jay Wright is fond of saying that every experience his young team has will be a new one.
Coming off their first loss of the season, a 77-55 shellacking at the hands of Alabama in the championship of the 2K Sports Classic, the most recent experience for this group of Wildcats was certainly new. It just wasn’t one they’d like to relive anytime soon. The newest challenge for Villanova, then, is to bounce back from it, beginning with Tuesday’s game against Columbia at the Pavilion (7 p.m., ESPN3).
“I think it was the perfect experience for this team,” Wright said of the two-day tournament, which saw the Wildcats notch a thrilling come-from-behind victory against Purdue in the semifinals. “We played well against Purdue; got down, never gave up, and came back and closed it really well. In that one game we went through every type of emotion. Then I think we didn’t handle success well the next day. I think we came in wanting it to just happen because we won the night before. We got our butts kicked, and they learned it. I really do believe they learned it.”
At first glance, hosting Columbia might seem like the perfect opportunity for the Wildcats (3-1) to get back on track. The Lions (2-1) are fresh off a home loss to Marist, and frequently find themselves in the bottom half of the Ivy League standings at season’s end. Upon closer inspection, these Lions might not be so cowardly as their predecessors.
Columbia brings back four starters from last season’s squad that finished 15-15 overall and sixth in the conference with a 4-10 mark, enough for the Lions to be picked third in the Ivy League preseason poll. At the center of the heightened expectations is the return of senior point guard Brian Barbour.
Regarded as one of the league’s top players, the California native came into the year ninth on the school’s all-time assists list, and is off to a fast start in his final season. Barbour is averaging 13.3 points per game, with 16 assists to just four turnovers on his ledger. With 60 career starts under his belt, Barbour figures to be a formidable foe for freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who leads the Wildcats in scoring (16.3 ppg) through his first four collegiate games.
“They have,” Wright said of Barbour, “a great senior point guard.”
The Lions enter Tuesday’s game as big underdogs (Villanova opened as a 10-point favorite), but that hasn’t stopped head coach Kyle Smith from beating the odds- and the Wildcats- in the past. Before taking the job at Columbia, Smith was an associate head coach at St. Mary’s for 10 years, and was by Randy Bennett’s side when the Gaels shocked second-seeded Villanova in the second round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Wright sees a lot of that Cinderella story in Smith’s current outfit.
“They have a great scheme,” Wright told CoBL on Monday. “Two-three zone, shooting threes and spreading you out, going inside-out with the big men…very similar to the St. Mary’s team that beat us in the NCAA Tournament. It’s going to be a good test for us. I want our guys to learn that it’s not about coming off the Alabama game; we need a win. We need to come out and play Villanova basketball.”
Joining Barbour in the backcourt are a pair of efficient scorers in Grant Mullins and Steve Frankoski. Mullins (9.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg), a freshman from Canada, has connected on seven of his nine attempts from the field, while Frankoski (9.0, 2.7) is off to a strong start after missing the entire 2011-12 season with a foot injury.
On the front line, Smith returns his full complement of weapons. Six-foot-eleven senior center Mark Cisco, the league’s fifth-leading rebounder last year, is back to head a versatile frontcourt that also features 6-8 senior John Daniels, who started 21 games a year ago, and 6-7 sophomore Alex Rosenberg (9.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), the team’s leading rebounder. Sophomore center Cory Osetkowski (6.0, 3.7) has taken on an increased role in his second season, often sharing the court with the bruising Cisco for extended stretches, and freshman forward Zach En’Wezoh (4.0, 4.0) has given the Lions valuable minutes off the bench.
More consistent play from his own frontcourt is at the top of Wright’s wish list less than a week away from Villanova’s first Big Five tilt of the season, a Sunday trip to Tom Gola Arena to take on Atlantic 10 contender La Salle. Expected to be the strength of the team entering the season, the Wildcats’ front line has struggled in the early going, no one more so than Mouphtaou Yarou. After averaging 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a year ago, the senior’s numbers have dropped to 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Through four games, Yarou has taken just 15 shots, making only five, and grabbed just 18 rebounds without a blocked shot.
“He’s just in a funk,” Wright said. “Mouph thinks too much. He’s too smart, too well-meaning, and too good a person. He never wants to take a bad shot; he never wants to make a mistake. He just thinks too much, and we’ve got to get him out of this funk. He’s important.”
Senior center Maurice Sutton, averaging 7.0 points in 13 minutes of action, said Yarou has simply been fulfilling his role, and is confident the native of Benin is primed for a slump-busting performance.
“I think he’s past due for an amazing game,” Sutton said. “He’s going to come out and probably get 20 and 20.”
Fortunately for Wright, sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston (12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) appears to have turned a corner after a slow start. The Brooklyn native played well in the Wildcats’ two games at Madison Square Garden, averaging 16.5 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Pinkston also converted 16 of his 18 free throws after struggling to a 6-of-14 performance at the stripe in a win over Marshall.
“That’s one of the key things in my game, getting to the line and knocking down free throws,” Pinkston told CoBL. “I’m going to continue to do that.”
Wright also said he was pleased with the production he’s gotten from Sutton and freshman Daniel Ochefu. Along with Yarou, they give Wright a versatile trio with which to tinker based on the situation.
“Mo, Mouph, and Daniel give us the ability, based on the game, to use them in different ways depending on what’s needed,” Wright said. “I want to use all three of them based on how much effort they give us and what we need from them each game.”
After Friday’s setback, what Villanova needs most from Tuesday’s game is a victory. The season is still young, and to a man the Wildcats remain firm in their belief that as long as they play ‘Villanova basketball,’ the rest will take care of itself.
“It’s the beginning of the season,” Pinkston said. “It’s early, and there’s always room for improvement…We’ve shown there’s some things we need to work on, so that’s what we’re going to continue to do. At the end of the season, we’ll see where that will take us.”
NOTES: Arcidiacono was named the Big East Rookie of the Week…When asked about Rutgers’ impending move to the Big Ten and the ever-changing landscape of college athletics, Wright said that his first priority is always Villanova. “I’ve got to see what our plan is,” he told CoBL. “When times like this get going, what I focus on is Villanova, just because I don’t know what else is going on. Once I know Villanova is good, I’ll start thinking about what’s next for Villanova. There’s options…I’m always concerned most with what we’re doing, and what our options are. It’s going to be interesting what our commissioner has ready for us.”