There is no getting around Mouphtaou Yarou's size. All conversations about the Villanova center begin there, with what is now a 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame that anchors the post for a Wildcats team known more for its traditionally stellar guards. That big body is the reason why he is here. Yarou's older brother suggested he switch from being the biggest striker on the soccer pitch to joining him on the basketball court back home in the small West African country of Benin. It's the first thing coaches say they noticed about Yarou, the way his physical presence controls the paint. "Just the power," said Stu Vetter, who coached him as a senior at Montrose Christian School in Maryland, "the sheer power of his inside play."
But that big body is still mortal, and when discussing Yarou's basketball career there is no getting around how gravely that was demonstrated during his freshman season. Just 14 hours before what would have been his third college game, the first of three in the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Classic, his future became clouded with doubt. Team doctors had received the results from routine preseason blood testing. Yarou's were uncertain but concerning: he had a viral infection, likely hepatitis B, and would need to return to Pennsylvania for more testing. The next day Yarou flew back with an assistant coach. He was out indefinitely.
That was November 18, 2009 -- a year ago this week. Yarou hadn't given the anniversary much thought.
"I don't really look back," he said, "because when I look back it's pretty painful."
Before that, college had begun reasonably well for Yarou, who had only moved to the U.S. and begun speaking English two years earlier. He scored a 99 on his first calculus exam at Villanova. He was quickly embraced by fans, who took to bellowing "Mooouuuuph!" at every opportunity he gave them to cheer. He emerged as the lone starter from one of the Wildcats' best recruiting hauls, playing 37 minutes during 'Nova's first two games.
Still something seemed off. Villanova coach Jay Wright had seen Yarou play in high school, watched the top 10 prospect who averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game on one of the nation's best prep school teams (Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md.), and knew that he was not coaching the same player. Now Yarou tired easily and had difficulty keeping up in the Wildcats' system.
"I just kept thinking, maybe he's confused, maybe he's struggled with the transition," Wright said. "He never seemed right."
The blood test provided some answers but raised more questions. As the Thanksgiving holiday postponed a definitive diagnosis, rumors swirled. Just what was the unknown infection that had sent Yarou home from Puerto Rico? Was it hepatitis B, or something worse? Was it tuberculosis? Was Yarou's life in danger?
Though Wright couldn't comment publicly, he sat down with Yarou to tell him that his illness might be life-altering but likely not life-threatening. "[Doctors] were saying he might never be able to play -- ever," Wright says. "He was scared to death." Wright told him not to worry about basketball; his place at the university was secure regardless. Villanova would honor Yarou's scholarship and provide him the education his family had been promised at a coastal Benin hotel a year earlier.
After nearly two weeks in limbo, the hepatitis B diagnosis became official. Yarou remained barred from physical contact with teammates and coaches, working out by himself as the other Wildcats practiced. Without any symptoms of the virus' advancement, team doctors were confident they could treat it, but no timetable was given for Yarou's return. Reports suggested he might miss the entire season, a possibility Wright openly entertained and Yarou privately believed. "I didn't think I would make it," he said. "I was doubting."
But Yarou's work ethic left little room for apprehension. He had begun lifting weights as a junior at Virginia's Massanutten Military Academy and been a relentless gym rat ever since, blending his uncommonly natural instincts for basketball -- he only started playing at 13 -- with an unnatural appetite for self-improvement. At Montrose Christian he woke up to jog several miles on his own before an all-day schedule that included class, study hall, weight training and practice. On days when the team held 6 a.m. workouts, he would often arrive at the gym before anyone was there to let him in. Vetter lets out a chuckle recounting it all. "We actually had to slow him down a little bit," Vetter said.
Despite being fatigued enough to regularly fall asleep before 9 p.m. last winter, Yarou says he actually ended up getting stronger while sidelined, getting in enough weight training that his improved power threw off his shot when he was finally cleared to play again. That date came sooner than anyone expected: On December 31, doctors determined it was safe for him to resume practicing. But the timing complicated his return to game action. Big East play began the next week -- Yarou would have to go from sick and inactive to one of the country's most unforgiving leagues without the benefit of a full nonconference test run. He didn't mind. "I wasn't even thinking about that," he said. "I was just happy to be on the floor."
Wearing white sleeves to protect from scratches, Yarou was eased back into the rotation in short spurts a week later. It was in his second game back, a home win against Marquette, that Yarou made a believer of himself. As he stood near the baseline on offense in the second half, the Wildcats turned the ball over near the top of the key and the Golden Eagles took off on a break the other way. Yarou sprinted from the back of the pack in pursuit. He was at the opponents' free-throw line when Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom got the ball on the left block and went up with a layup. Yarou leapt, closed the gap, and slapped the shot off the backboard. The shooter tumbled to the floor, drawing a whistle against Yarou, but the big man had proved something to himself nonetheless.
"After that I said, 'OK, I'm back,'" Yarou said with a smile. "I can do everything I want."
The next two months provided more short bursts of action, more glimpses of what might come amid the ups and downs one might expect from a freshman returning from a seven-week absence. He found a steadier role near the season's end, averaging more than 20 minutes per game during the season's last six contests. Three times in that span he scored in double figures, including 17 in an NCAA tournament win over Robert Morris. Twice he grabbed eight rebounds.
That's where things have picked up for Yarou in his second season, now averaging 8.3 points and 6.0 rebounds and blocking five shots through Villanova's opening three games. He teams with fellow sophomore Maurice Sutton and senior Antonio Pena to give Wright the kind of interior depth he's rarely had on the Main Line. "It's fun to watch," Wright says.
A year after fearing for his future, Yarou is concerned with working on his face-up game and calling out reads from the back of the Wildcats' defensive sets. He's improving as a perimeter defender, staying out on switches and following his man if he moves away from the paint. Wright wants him to become more explosive around the basket, turning that big body into a fully skilled force that can thrive not only in the Big East, but on the next level as well.
"Right now, I don't think he's even close to where he can be," Wright says. He's even further from where he was.