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In April 2008 Villanova coach Jay Wright went to an AAU tournament to scout Talib Zanna, a 6'9" forward from Nigeria. Wright's Wildcats were due to lose three senior forwards after the 2008--09 season, and they'd need reinforcements.
The game Wright attended initially looked like a waste: Zanna was absent. The saving grace was a 6'10" forward from Nigeria's narrow neighbor, Benin, whom Wright had never seen. "I called my staff to tell them that there was this guy, number 34, who was a beast," Wright says.
At that point Mouphtaou Yarou had only been in the U.S. for four months and was so little known that he was being identified as Mouphtaou Tarou. Wright began recruiting the Big Beninois before any other major-conference school did, and on his campus visit in August, Yarou made friends with Cameroonian senior Frank Tchuisi, a fellow francophone who was about to become a team assistant.
A month later Wright and assistant Pat Chambers traveled to Yarou's hometown of Natitingou to visit his family. An English-speaking uncle told them, "Don't worry about basketball. They want to know he'll get an education."
School matters on the Main Line, but so does hoops, and now Yarou is 'Nova's x factor. The Wildcats boast an experienced backcourt, with senior Scottie Reynolds and juniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes back from last season's Final Four team but won't contend again unless Yarou emerges as a formidable rebounder and shot blocker.
The first Benin-born baller of significance in the U.S., Yarou developed nimble feet playing soccer and cultivated a soft touch while being schooled by his brother Kader, whose career was cut short by injury. Mouphtaou credits his sibling for teaching him a face-up game advanced enough that it has Wright vowing, "He'll be shooting threes before he leaves."
The Wildcats don't need more perimeter weapons. For the sake of their Final Four encore, a true big man may have appeared just in time.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Jay Wright (9th season)