Last year's Villanova squad underperformed, underachieved, and were just generally lousy in almost all aspects and facets of the game. They're back this year to prove that last year was just a down year for the 'Cats, with 7 new faces to facilitate a return to the NCAA Tournament. Today's "Media Day" was a way to quell any doubts and raise expectations for the upcoming season.
Media Day was held in The Pavilion, with the team nervously entering in a single file line in full uniform. They lined up along the press table on the side of the court to allow reporters to approach and ask questions. With such a young team, my goal was to find out how the only two seniors, Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton, feel about being the de facto leaders of the squad. After that, I wanted to see what some of the youngsters had to say about the transition from the high school to the college game, as well as a few words from transfer Tony Chennault.
Mouph was the first player I approached. At 6'10", he is a behemoth to stand next to, but his demeanor, at least off the court, is very reserved, quiet, and shy. I asked him his thoughts on being the last member of the heralded class of 2013, how he views his leadership role on the team, and who he thinks will help out in the upcoming season.
"I didn't really think about it that much," Mouph said with a smile (about being the last member of his class), "I'm just trying to be the best player that I can be, and also be another voice for the coaches."
When I asked what he worked on in the offseason, he said "Defense, and staying in shape." He does look slimmed down, more toned, and more athletic than when I first saw him on the court my freshman year.
"We are just trying to be the best team that we can be," Mouph said. The conversation turned toward the freshmen, as it did all afternoon. "The freshmen have been really impressive. Specifically Ryan Arch, who has been picking things up really quickly. Ochefu will really help us down low, he's very long and athletic."
I then approached Mo Sutton, the tall, lanky, red-shirt Senior who is often the most energetic guy on the court and bench. He reiterated what Mouph discussed, following what Jay Wright wants. "In the offseason I worked on my all around game, aggressiveness on both ends of the court, especially rebounding."
"Our goal is to play Villanova basketball" Sutton said.
"We have nothing but high expectations, the sky is the limit," Sutton said. "Honestly, not being ranked might be the best thing, gives us the chance for shock and awe. We are better than what other people say."
Sutton speaks with a mix of swagger and nonchalance, but you can tell that he believes in what he's saying, in the vision that Wright has for this team, which is not what you might think. For Wright, defense is stressed above all else, not offense.
I made my way over to whom I believe will provide a lot of help off of the bench, freshman center Daniel Ochefu.
"I'm just trying to play hard every day and do what coach wants us to do," Ochefu said. One of the most interesting things to learn is how players adjust to the transition from high school to the college game.
"Oh man, the game is way more physical, much quicker, there are more scouting reports," Ochefu explained. "High school is less intense. In college, everything is scouted, everything is highly detailed."
Of all the players I spoke to, Ochefu was the most confident in the team's chances of a tournament birth. "If we play hard, execute, there is no reason we can't make the tournament."
Ochefu believes that the strengths of the team are defense, rebounding, and team chemistry. How have the players been building team chemistry? "Just making sure we're all coming to practice every day, making sure people are on top of their game, and if one person is down we pick them up."
I moved on to the freshman that fans have been looking forward to watching the most: Ryan Arcidiacano (Pronounced Arch-i-dee-ack-a-no, but most, and I, will be calling him "Arch" from now on). There are rumors floating about his role on this years Villanova squad, especially as former offensive leader Maalik Wayns has moved on to the NBA. In most scouting reports, the knock on Ryan is that he has a bit of an ego that got him into trouble, but he was incredibly humble and well spoken.
"If I start, it'll be awesome, but if not, that's OK. I'll just work hard until I get there." Arch said. "I've been with the Villanova community since my junior year of high school so I've already felt like I belonged here."
Arch had back surgery last December, and started "legit playing" in April or May. "The second the surgery was over, I felt no pain. It feels awesome."
"I'm just trying to lead the team in offense and defense. I'm trying to shoot the ball well, play hard defense and get accustomed to the college game. College is much more physical, every play is a grind."
He had a bad shooting night against Carleton, but Ryan isn't concerned. "It was the first game that counted, it was my first real basketball game in two years, and I couldn't care less about shooting poorly. Anything can happen, I'm just going to do what coach asks, and get the right shots."
I then talked to Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault. We discussed the Villanova community and his transition. "The team is kind of what I expected. Its a great group, the Villanova community and student body is very welcoming. I'm just going to play hard, I'm gonna play hard in any role the coaches give me."
"Our strengths are defense. Were getting the guys all on the same page. Getting the guys to believe in defense was an easy sell. I don't mind getting down and dirty on defense."
"Playing ACC ball is going to help me adjust to the Big East. We are trying to prove people wrong, it's extra motivation."
After that, practice was under way, and the energy was up. The 'Cats were doing Princeton shooting drills and yelling across the court, encouraging their teammates to finish strong. They then moved into two groups, guards/shooters and big men. Jayvaughn Pinkston was part of the guards and shooters group because he wants to be a true guard by the time he leaves Villanova.
Jay Wright finally arrived from a function that lasted longer than he had anticipated. Posted below is the full interview, but I'll jot down some of the more interesting quotes because the second part of the interview is hard to hear in spots due to practice in the background.
"Were not gonna change you, you become us. We have 7 new guys, and all 7 are all in to what were trying to do. We have a good group of guys chemistry wise, they are all in."
Regarding Ryan Arch's back surgery and whether or not Wright is concerned: "I'm concerned, but nobody else is."
"We've shot the ball worse this season. I do believe we'll be a good shooting team...We've concentrated on defensive rebounding early, and it's showing. With that said, three point shooting is what we work on every day. Princeton shooting every day. Every morning we're shooting."
"We belong in this position (low expectations) because of how we played last year. I don't want to be in this position, I dont want to be relying on two freshmen, but we are. We want to be the best team we can be."
"Low preseason rankings dont mean anything. We will be judged on wins and losses and tournament appearances, but that is not how we judge ourselves. I will be honest with you, were we the best team we could be? No."
"I think the three best knockdown shooters will be Ryan Arch, Jayvaughn Pinkston, and Tony Chennault."
"I think Chennault is a leader. Right now we're gonna use him as a 6th man because he can play both guard spots. He said 'I'll do anything'".
"Tony is respected, the guys were just getting to know him when his brother got shot, and how he dealt with that really impressed the guys. It made our team stronger right away. Tony is as respected as anyone on this team."
And just like that, it was over. The team is focused on defense, and playing "Villanova Basketball". Will this year be as disappointing as last year? I don't believe so, but that doesn't necessarily mean a tourny birth is in the picture this year.