By Lewis Gould
Don’t look now, but Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats are 14-1 after last night’s thumping of St. John’s on the road and they are ranked No. 8 in the AP coaches poll.
And they have a new look, thanks to junior center Daniel Ochefu, who put up monster numbers — 19 points and 24 rebounds — in last Saturday’s loss to Seton Hall.
The 6-10 junior center from Baltimore who graduated from Downingtown East High is averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds per game this season.
Coming into the season, many believed that it would be the Wildcats’ pair of seniors, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, who would assert themselves in order to compensate for the loss of last year’s leading scorer, James Bell. Their play, coupled with junior Ryan Arcidiacono and emerging guard Dylan Ennis, has come at an opportune time, providing Villanova with a remarkably balanced scoring attack.
Yet while many fans have focused their attention and concern on the team’s dynamic offense, the play of sophomore wing Josh Hart and center Ochefu are a significant reason why Villanova is so hard to beat.
Last season’s 29-5 squad featured a similar philosophy on the offensive end: defend the passing lanes, get into transition, and line up the perimeter with threatening shooters. Where the Wildcats stumbled down the stretch, against teams like Creighton and later UConn, was in playing lockdown team defense.
Most of the time, the guards helped on entry passes into the lane, giving up open looks from beyond the arc in an effort to prevent interior baskets. Against deadly jump-shooting teams like the Bluejays and Huskies, that strategy proved fatal.
What makes this year’s team different, though, is the development of Ochefu, a player who was a liability on the offensive end and struggled to stay out of foul trouble last season. His improvement has been dramatic; a combination of better footwork and soft touch around the basket has led to an array of serviceable post moves.
This offensive wrinkle allows the Wildcats to have better spacing, but just as importantly, his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess have also improved as he has cut down on fouls (from 2.8 to 2.2 per game).
Ochefu posted a 10-point, nine-rebound, five-block performance against Butler in the team’s conference opener last week, and a team that had dominated North Carolina’s big and athletic front line was unable to repeat the trick against Villanova.
“Well you have to give Villanova a lot of credit,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “They were exceptional defensively, as we thought they would be. Jay [Wright] has a really good team and they are good on both ends; all their numbers would back that up.”
With Villanova humming along and Wright preaching the virtues of his balanced approach, Ochefu’s positive impact has largely gone unnoticed. A good defense needs tough guards on the perimeter in addition to an interior presence that prevents easy looks should the offense penetrate the lane. A great defense needs all of that plus an element of teamwork and communication to ensure no player ever goes unguarded.
The emergence of Ochefu has moved the Villanova defensive needle from good to great. “It started in high school; he was a hard-working kid in high school, putting in extra work. That’s what we loved about him,” Wright said of his big man earlier this season. “He wasn’t a finished product in high school, obviously, but we saw how much work he was putting in with his high school coach. And since he has come to Villanova, it’s been the same.”