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Redshirt sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston will be a key part of this year’s team, adding outside shooting and a low-post presence. (Mark O’Neil / The Villanovan)

by Brett Klein

The men’s basketball team will begin its 2012-’13 campaign tomorrow night, Nov. 9, at the Pavilion when they battle the University of the District of Columbia Firebirds.

The Wildcats, once again coached by Jay Wright, who is entering his 12th season at the helm, are looking to bounce back after a largely underwhelming season last year in which they finished just 13-19, including a dismal 5-13 against Big East opponents. Although the ’Cats enter this season without their best player from 2011, floor general Maalik Wayns—who now plays his home games exclusively at the Wells Fargo Center as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers—their roster is now a year older and more experienced.

Wayns’ former role as centerpiece of the Wildcats will most likely be assumed by senior forward/center Mouphtaou Yarou, whose bulky 6-foot-10-inch frame appears ready to shoulder the burden. Yarou led the team in rebounding last season at 8.2 rebounds per game, helping the ’Cats as a team ranked 16th in the nation in the category at 39.1 boards per contest.

In Villanova’s only exhibition game on Nov. 1 against Carleton University, Yarou paced the Wildcats with an impressive double-double, putting up 21 points while grabbing 12 rebounds. It was clear that Yarou’s height and strength posed a serious problem for Carleton’s defense, something that Villanova should once again look to exploit when they face UDC, whose tallest player is senior forward Dyrek Jones, who stands at just 6-feet-8-inches.

Another source of optimism is the Wildcats’ returning perimeter players, who are poised to have impactful seasons with at least one full year of experience under their belts. Among those ready to step into more prominent roles are junior guard James Bell, redshirt sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston and sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard.

The cohesiveness and production of these players will be vital to the team’s success, as they will be responsible for taking some of the pressure off of Yarou to constantly be the main source of offense. Bell, Pinkston and Hilliard are all capable shooters from three-point range, but they also possess the ability to get to the rim and finish or draw the foul when their shots aren’t falling.

Against Carleton, the Wildcats were ice cold from deep, hitting just three of their 20 attempts from beyond the arc for a dismal 15 percent. Despite the incredibly erratic shooting, Hilliard was still able to find ways to score, finishing the game with 15 points on an efficient 6-for-12 shooting from the field. If the ’Cats are to compete each night during their grueling schedule, they must not depend too heavily on three-point shooting and must instead focus on getting higher-quality shots.  Rounding out this year’s roster is a contingent of solid freshmen, most notably guard Ryan Arcidiacono, forward Daniel Ochefu and guard Mislav Brzoja.

In the exhibition match, Arcidiacono started the game and played an impressive 27 minutes. Although he struggled mightily shooting the ball, as many of the ’Cats did, Arcidiacono gave the Wildcats and their fans confidence in his ability to handle the ball and run the offense. Having a stable presence at the point guard position will be crucial to the Wildcats’ success. The offense will run infinitely more smoothly if Arcidiacono and sophomore guard Ty Johnson are able to slow the game down when things begin to get out of hand.

Ochefu, on the other hand, will be expected to log significant minutes in a backup big man role, holding down the inside on offense and defense when Yarou is on the bench. Brzoja impressed fans at the annual Blue-White scrimmage with his fluid outside shot, which could prove to be a valuable asset for Coach Wright off the bench. Each bringing a different facet of the game to the floor, these freshmen could have an immediate impact on the court for the Wildcats.

Although the University of the District of Columbia Firebirds do not play in Division I of the NCAA, this is not a team for the Wildcats to take lightly under any circumstances. UDC played its way to a staggeringly impressive 22-5 record a season ago, clearly understanding what it takes to win games.

Additionally, UDC participates every year in the 2K Sports Classic where they face Division I opponents. Therefore, as they journey to the Pavilion to take on Villanova, the Firebirds are no strangers to the rapid pace and exceptional talent of D-I competition. With a full slate of games ahead of them, Villanova can ill afford to take any opponent lightly, and the team is poised to charge out of the gate.

The Wildcats have now finished all the hoopla that comes with the opening of a new season. Hoops Mania is over, Rick Ross has come and gone and it is finally time to play basketball.

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