Nearly three months after the Huskies won the national championship, and just days after they lost their two leading scorers, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, in the NBA draft, coach Jim Calhoun called sophomore forward Charlie Villanueva into his office to deliver an important message. "You can be our leading scorer," Calhoun said, "but whether you do it or not is dependent on you."
For Villanueva, who averaged 8.9 points coming off the bench as a freshman but didn't come close to reaching his offensive potential, it was just the kind of news he had been waiting to hear. Villanueva, who grew up in Brooklyn had considered jumping to the NBA straight out of high school, but he decided to go to college after several NBA scouts questioned his effort and intensity, especially on the defensive end. Last season he showed flashes of offensive brilliance--he scored 25 points against Rice on 10-of-11 shooting--but was inconsistent and did little to dispel his poor defensive reputation. When Villanueva received his championship ring at the team's postseason banquet in September, Calhoun, who treated the affair like a Friars Club roast, praised him before pointing to his vacated seat and saying, "Of course, that chair could score 12 points on Charlie--and have five assists."
"I laughed, but I took it personally," says Villanueva, who has used Calhoun's barbs as motivation. "Defense isn't going to be a problem for me anymore."
Villanueva worked hard over the summer, concentrating on not only his defense but also his physique. He bulked up from 225 to 245 pounds and made a U.S. national team which won a gold medal in Canada. Both Calhoun and Villanueva insist that the sophomore has become more energetic on defense, but his offensive prowess will be more important to the success of the Huskies, who lost 55.5% of their scoring from last season. Drawing upon the experience he gained as a 6-foot point guard during his freshman year of high school, Villanueva, who's now 6'11", came to Connecticut with an inside-outside game most big men can only dream of. Now he's ready to prove that he can be the Huskies' leader on both ends of the floor.
"I didn't always give 110 percent last season," Villanueva admits. "I'm a lot hungrier now. Emeka and Ben are gone, so someone has to step up, and I'm willing to do it." --L.W.
2003--04 RECORD: 33--6 (12--4, 2nd in Big East)
TOURNAMENT: NCAA champions
The Huskies have wings who can fly, especially Gay, and Calhoun keeps the pedal to the metal.
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
"I don't think one guy can replace either Emeka Okafor or Ben Gordon, but collectively UConn has the talent to keep pace with last year's team.... Rudy Gay is going to be a major player right away.... Josh Boone is one of the top rebounders in the country and a force defensively.... Charlie Villanueva likes to face the basket and be aggressive on the offensive end. You have to put one of your best defenders on him because he's shown he can exploit almost anyone.... You can't sag off Rashad Anderson at the two. He's a spot-up three-point shooter with a quick release and 25-foot range."
Blessed with athleticism, Villanueva showed flashes last season, but he lacked consistency, especially on defense.