Yarou a key if Wildcats are to Mouph on

Mouphtaou Yarou has a huge upside and not much experience.
Mouphtaou Yarou has a huge upside and not much experience.
Posted: March 17, 2011

THEY CITE his feet as a reason he might be something special and his hands as a reason he might not. To Villanova big man Mouphtaou Yarou, though, the litmus test is in the game's language, the where, when and how that decides his impact on a game far more than those sometimes clumsy mitts of his.

"To me, it's being part of a team," he was saying before practice this week. "To play as a team during the season. Soccer is a team sport, but you don't have to play as a team on defense the way you do here. You know what I mean? You have a job, and you have to talk, but here you really have to play as a team."

There have been times, especially earlier this season, when Yarou's play suggested a quick study, that his 4 years of organized basketball was following a similar track to the speed in which he learns languages and intellectual concepts. The game against Louisville. The two against Pittsburgh.

There have been other times, often late this year, when he looks as ill-fitted as a 6-10, 250-pound striker would, or a towering tennis player would. Those were his athletic precursors - fast feet, quick reflexes, accurate, if not receptive hands - that had coaches like Villanova's Jay Wright salivating for the opportunity to integrate them into their unforgiving game.

But Mouph is right. You can make up 3 yards of bad positioning on a soccer field. No one will notice.

You get two serves.

"If I had to pick, I'd say he's an athlete who is a big man," said Wright, choosing that over the reverse. "He can pass the ball. He has good instincts - facing the basket."

Yarou's season reads like two players wore the same uniform. He averaged 8.4 points. He scored at least 10 points in 12 games. He recorded five double-doubles.

He was held to a field goal - or nothing at all - in seven games. When he went down with rib and wrist injuries 7 minutes into Villanova's first-round matchup with South Florida in the Big East Conference tournament, he sent the Wildcats into matchup mayhem and ultimately the ugliest of losses.

He's a sophomore who missed a big chunk of his freshman season with hepatitis B, a sophomore who did not pick up a basketball until he was 13. At times, that has made him seem clueless, or lacking something, but really what we're all watching is someone gifted enough both intellectually and athletically to be out there figuring out a sport where the difference between a great play and a bonehead one is determined by reflexes and decisions.

Less than an inch and less than a second.

"He's had to learn a few different things but his footwork is incredible," senior guard Corey Stokes said. "He's a good learner. He's willing to let everybody teach him."

Said Wright, "He's kind of like a European player, never really comfortable with his back to the basket. We're trying to make him a complete player. We know he can face. And this team needed a back-to-the-basket presence. And, in some games, that's valuable. He did a great job twice against McGhee this year. And it was great."

Gary McGhee is Pittsburgh's 6-11 senior center, as polished a post player as there is in the Big East. George Mason, tomorrow's first-round opponent, doesn't really have a player like him. What it has are five players who move around constantly, who set screens and exchange positions and create havoc and mismatches.

"The year we got American in the first round - they were a machine," Wright said. "You can talk Patriot League all you want. It's still a team game. And they were a flat-out machine. They sliced us early. We were mentally tough enough and we were physically tough enough that we wore them down. But in terms of execution? They sliced us."

George Mason is a Colonial Athletic Association team that finished its regular season with 15 consecutive wins before an upset loss to VCU in the second round of its tournament. The Patriots live and die by the three, and their opportunity for open looks relies on how well and quickly they execute their offense.

That can mean Mike Morrison, their 6-9 junior, wandering out to the perimeter. That can mean less than an inch and less than a second.

"I think it's going to be a great challenge for Mouph," Wright said. "They're going to pull him away from the basket. He's going to have to guard on the perimeter. He's done that. I watched our Louisville game just to remember him doing that. But if they make that a disadvantage for us, if he can't guard them on the perimeter and he can't take advantage of them offensively, then it's going to be tough for him." *

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donnels@phillynews.com.

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