Villanova's Daniel Ochefu has emerged as a leader

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Villanova's Daniel Ochefu smiles before meeting the media.

HOUSTON - The opportunity to become a leader on the basketball court came early for Daniel Ochefu, mainly because he towered over his teammates when he played for Westtown Friends School.

"I had to be a leader from day one," the senior center for Villanova said Thursday after the Wildcats completed their first practice at NRG Stadium since arriving at the Final Four. "I was the biggest guy on the court and the best player, so I was just forced to be a leader.

"Then when I got to Villanova, Mouph [senior Mouphtaou Yarou] set the standard for me. I was his roommate over the summer and during the year. Seeing the stuff he did, the talks he had with Coach, and the way he led the team was definitely good for me."

Ochefu, who has grown four inches since his days as a 6-foot-7 freshman at Westtown, shares the co-captain responsibilities with Ryan Arcidiacono for the Wildcats (33-5), who will take on Oklahoma (29-7) in the first game of the national semifinal doubleheader Saturday night.

Seth Berger, who coached Ochefu at Westtown, said the player showed immediately he was a great teammate, then really started to blossom as a leader toward the end of his sophomore season.

"At that point," Berger said in a telephone interview, "it started to click for Daniel that for him to be as good as he could be, and for our team to be as good as it could be, he had to lead by example. He had to be the first guy in the gym and had to work with the kids on the team.

"So it was at that time when he began to work his hardest and demanded the most of his teammates and himself."

Villanova coach Jay Wright said one of Ochefu's strong points as a leader is his knowledge of the game.

"Daniel's really unique as a big guy because he has incredible basketball intelligence, a really high IQ," Wright said. "He looks at the game really like a point guard. When we prepare for games and we do scouting reports, he's the guy that's the most dialed in. Arch is really dialed in, but Daniel is even more. He demands it of everybody else on the team."

Ochefu isn't afraid to point out when something is wrong. He works in tandem with Arcidiacono, even going so far as playing "good-cop, bad-cop" roles.

"Sometimes, I'm the good cop. Sometimes, I'm the bad cop," Ochefu said. "Most times I'm probably the bad cop. When we're in the heat of the game or in practice or something needs to be said, I'm definitely able to step up to the plate and do that. If Arch needs to do that, I let him do that. We work great off each other."

Arcidiacono recalled a time in the Big East tournament, in which Ochefu was hampered by a sprained right ankle, when the two co-captains actually went at each other.

"He was on the floor hobbling around so I started to flip out on him in the huddle and he was screaming at me," Arcidiacono said. "We went on a big run and I think everyone realized that if you're going to be on the floor, you need to give it whatever you can. We had other guys, and Darryl [Reynolds] was playing really well, so I think that was the one time we flipped the switch and we both went off on each other."

During a timeout in the win Saturday over Kansas, Wright said, he was going to point out an error by sophomore guard Phil Booth, but Ochefu beat him to it. He said both had to apologize later to Booth, however, after a film review showed they were wrong.

In addition to his leadership, Ochefu has done a little bit of everything on the court to get the Wildcats to this point. He is averaging 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 blocked shots, and 1.5 steals in four NCAA tournament games while shooting 66.7 percent from the field.

Last weekend, he scored 17 points against Miami, in a game he had to leave briefly after tweaking his right ankle, and had 10 points and eight rebounds against Kansas.

He appears to be a naturally talented big man, but he acknowledges that it has taken a lot of hard work for him to get there.

"There's definitely something I like about working hard - coming into the gym, putting in the extra work in the summertime, just pushing myself as I get ready for the season," he said. "It's really all the work that we put in in the summer and the preseason that helps us get to where we are right now."

Spoken like a true leader.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq