The more JayVaughn Pinkston became accustomed to the college game last season, the more valuable he turned out to be as another scoring option on a Villanova team that was struggling to make shots.
But Pinkston soon discovered that all the energy he was expending with his increased minutes exhausted him. Playing guard at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds taxed his conditioning, and there were times when he was operating on guts alone when resting on the bench might have been better.
Now, however, Pinkston looks and feels better after an off-season dedicated to losing weight and improving his nutrition. When preseason practice began last month, he weighed 20 to 25 pounds less than he did at the end of the Wildcats' 2011-12 season in March.
"He has to be 240 before practice every day, and some days he's 235," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "He's never over. As we all know, losing weight is one of the most difficult things to do in the world. But for a college kid, it's tremendous what he's done."
Pinkston described the weight loss as "helping the team and my purpose." And it showed a sense of a growing maturity, a commitment to improve himself and the Wildcats.
"I do see him approaching everything he does on the floor with a maturity and a confidence he didn't have last year," Wright said. "Sometimes last year, you would teach him something and he would take it as if you were saying he wasn't good.
"This year, whatever you say to him, he's confident that he knows he's a good player and he's taking it as constructive criticism to get better. It's been enjoyable to work with him."
Pinkston, who turns 21 later this month, returned to basketball a year ago after being suspended by the university for the 2010-11 season for his role in an off-campus fight. He looked uncomfortable on the court before the Wildcats began their Big East schedule, then gradually settled in.
He blossomed in February with three games of more than 20 points, including a 28-point, 14-rebound performance at home against Providence. He averaged 12.6 points in conference games, compared with 5.8 points in nonconference contests, and shot a team-high 103 free throws against Big East opponents.
"It took me a while because I was doing a lot of thinking instead of playing," Pinkston said. "So it took me until a couple of games into the Big East to really start playing my game, and just basically thinking instead of going off instinct.
"I'd be like, 'Should I pass? What should I do right now?' Basically, I didn't want to mess up. I wanted everything to go smoothly but it didn't so it took me a while."
It proved to be a valuable year of experience for Pinkston. He also adjusted to his teammates after being unable to practice with them because of the suspension.
"The difference is experience, being out there playing with my team and getting a feel as to how people will play me," he said. "That's really it. It's getting to know my teammates a little bit better. There was a year I didn't play and I was just going out there [in the game] just off practice. A year under your belt helps."
Pinkston is a versatile player who can handle the basketball, shoot from outside, drive to the hoop, get to the free-throw line and rebound. He will play this season at a wing-guard position in Villanova's scheme.
"It's going to be a fun experience for me," he said, "coming off screens, getting other people involved first, trying to score and doing everything else, whatever it takes for my team to win. I like the ball to be in my hands so I can make decisions. That's going to be good."
Wright said, however, that Pinkston needs to improve his decision-making and focus more on defense and rebounding.
"We're willing to ride through this with him because we think he's good enough and he's showing us good progress," he said. "J.P. is playing a perimeter spot because he's good at handling the ball, driving the ball."
The Wildcats have depth but are young. Wright said he could go as many as 10 deep, but only two seniors, Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton, are in that rotation. Yarou, like Pinkston, appears to be in great shape.
Villanova acquired a leader at point guard in former Neumann-Goretti star Tony Chennault, a transfer from Wake Forest, and helped its outside shooting with freshman Ryan Arcidiacono. If James Bell and Darrun Hilliard improve on their accuracy from deep, the Wildcats should improve significantly on last season's disappointing 13-19 record.
For Pinkston, eliminating pizza, eating smaller portions and substituting water for juice has left him feeling better about himself physically. Now it's time to go out, enjoy himself, and help get Villanova back on track.
"It seems like everybody is clicking together," he said. "Everybody's in it for one goal, which is win. We have good team chemistry. Everybody is listening to one another. It's going to be fun."
Blog: SuperNova: www.philly.com/supernova
Coach: Jay Wright (359-215 career, 113-93 Big East)
Last year: 13-19 (5-13 Big East, tied for 13th), lost in second round of Big East tournament.
Top returning players: Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10 senior forward, 11.3 ppg.); JayVaughn Pinkston (6-7 sophomore guard, 9.6 ppg.); James Bell (6-6 junior forward, 7.0 ppg.).
Top newcomers: Tony Chennault (6-2 junior guard); Ryan Arcidiacono (6-2 freshman guard), Daniel Ochefu (6-10 freshman).
Outlook: With Maalik Wayns, their top scorer from last season, now playing for the 76ers, the Wildcats face another season of rebuilding, something that may not sit well with Nova Nation. Their talented newcomers will boost the depth that will help them on defense and on the boards, but they'll need to shoot much better than they did last season. Life in the Big East appears treacherous, however, and a break-even season would be quite an achievement.
Projected Big East finish: 7-11.