UConn incomplete without Villanueva

Originally Published: November 18, 2003
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Charlie Villanueva was one of the last players to walk onto the floor Monday night. He shuffled by the Connecticut student section wearing a sweater and trying to put his best face forward while his teammates warmed up for their season opener against Yale.

As he somewhat slumped past the students along the baseline, one fan held up a sign that said, "Free Villanueva."

The inference that Villanueva is under some sort of house arrest isn't too far from the truth. But the 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-American freshman is not the only Husky being held hostage by his unknown eligibility status.

The nation's top-ranked team remains in flux until Villanueva's situation is settled.

"It's frustrating," preseason All-American forward Emeka Okafor said following Connecticut's 70-60 victory over Yale in the first round of the Preseason NIT. "We're trying to build team chemistry and get Charlie involved in the games. But he can't play.

"Roles are still being developed and by the time he gets in we'll have to start all over again. We're pretty anxious to get him in there. I've thought about (where he would play) myself and I have no idea. This team has so many interchangeable parts. He could be a three-man, a four-man, I don't know."

Okafor may be the only UConn player not affected in terms of minutes once Villanueva suits up. But, the player of the year favorite will feel further uncertainty until his teammate's future is decided.

Villanueva, who didn't speak with reporters Monday night, hasn't spoken to the media about the on-going NCAA investigation. But, what is at issue is who or how Villanueva paid for his NBA draft experience this past spring. Villanueva declared for the draft out of Blair Academy in New Jersey where he was a teammate of Duke freshman Luol Deng. Villanueva worked out at the IMG Academy in Florida. He also went to a workout the week of the Chicago pre-draft camp in June, which is where the biggest questions begin.

The workout in Chicago was set up by agent Dan Fagan for fellow prep NBA hopeful Ndudi Ebi at the Hoops the Gym in Chicago. Fagan told the NCAA that he didn't pay for any of Villanueva's expenses. Gary Charles, Villanueva's AAU coach, told the NCAA that Villanueva only went to the workout because Ebi invited him.

The NCAA is still checking to see if Fagan had any financial interest in Villanueva, or whether Nathan Blue, a New York friend of Villanueva, paid for any expenses. And if Blue did pay for the expenses, how long does Villanueva's relationship with Blue date back. If it is a pre-existing relationship to when Villanueva became a star recruit, Villanueva will likely escape harsh NCAA penalties. If not, the NCAA could hand down a multiple-game suspension. The NCAA also wants to know if the pattern of benefits changed between Blue and Villanueva as he became a stud recruit.

The Chicago workout was for Ebi. It was obvious to anyone watching the event that Villanueva wasn't who NBA scouts had come to see play. By the time Villanueva began his shooting workout, the majority of NBA scouts were filing out of the gym.

Villanueva, who hadn't signed a national letter of intent when he went through his brief flirtation with the NBA draft, had committed to Connecticut after originally committing to Illinois. Ebi had signed with Arizona. What makes these distinctions noteworthy is both players were still technically recruitable athletes, which means college coaches weren't allowed in the gym. NBA personnel, media and Fagan were in attendance. So, too, were two NCAA representatives.

Ebi was drafted in the first round by Minnesota. Villanueva withdrew from the draft by the June 19 deadline and shortly thereafter agreed to play for Connecticut. Throughout the summer, the UConn staff fully expected Villanueva's expenses to be scrutinized. But the NCAA didn't really start in on his case with interviews until the first semester began and Villanueva was a matriculated student athlete.

As of Tuesday morning, the NCAA and Connecticut were still finalizing their facts. Once they can agree on just what happened this spring, the case will be sent to a committee to decide on a game penalty, which the Huskies will likely appeal. By sitting out the Yale game, Villanueva has served the first game of any suspension, according to Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. (Villanueva also sat out UConn's two exhibitions, but those won't count.)

Like most McDonald's All-Americans, Villanueva will have an impact on his team. Minnesota's Kris Humphries scored 26 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in his debut Monday night. Villanueva won't be expected to put up those types of numbers on a team with as much talent as UConn, which was projected to be No. 1 even before he committed to the Huskies last spring.

But Villanueva certainly expected to be playing on Nov. 17.

So, while Villanueva wonders when or if he'll play this season, the team practices without him and will continue to play games with him sitting on the bench in street clothes. His situation creates uncertainty -- and in reality -- Villanueva's inactive status affects more than two positions.

For now, the frontline is full of players battling for minutes. Denham Brown, Rashad Anderson, Josh Boone, Marcus White, Hilton Armstrong and Shamon Tooles all played Monday night, with Brown and Boone standing out on both ends of the court. Once Villanueva joins the mix, it could set off a domino effect.

Despite standing nearly 7-feet, Villanueva can play both forward spots. When inserted into the small forward role, it could slide Brown to shooting guard and possibly junior Ben Gordon to the point. That means senior Taliek Brown sits and freshman Marcus Williams could see even fewer minutes.

Boone, 6-10, made it clear with his two blocks, six points and four rebounds that he'll have a spot regardless of when Villanueva is eligible.

"I'm going to do what I have to do," said Boone, a freshman who is listed to be an inch shorter than Villanueva but plays more with his back to the basket than Villanueva likes to do as a face-the-basket forward. "If they're bringing him (Villanueva) in to play then they're also bringing me into play. I'm not worried about what he's going to do. I'm going to go out and play my heart out every day.

"I don't pay attention to the hype (of Villanueva). If I play the most, that'll be because I play the hardest. We're all frustrated about how long it's taking (with Villanueva)."

Assistant coach Tom Moore said Villanueva had been sensational in practice prior to the Nov. 3 exhibition against Team Nike. Once he found out he wouldn't be playing, his mood took a turn for the worse. His attention span during practice fluctuated, according to Moore. But it did pick up again Sunday, the day before the Yale game.

Calhoun is trying to build a 10-player rotation. He played 10 players against Yale, but knows Villanueva moves into the rotation when eligible. White played five minutes, while Armstrong played just three. Tooles played 15, mostly for defensive purposes. But everyone except Okafor is looking over his shoulder to see if or when Villanueva returns.

"It's not easy for these kids," Calhoun said. "There's a disruption for our team, there's no question. Charlie Villanueva is a very talented kid, but do we want to be trying him out on January 1? His early games would be at North Carolina and Oklahoma. This is unfair for his teammates and for Charlie. We'd like to know where we are and go from there."

There is no question UConn is a different team with Villanueva in uniform. For now, however, UConn's first unit is scrimmaging against Villanueva in practice instead of using his talents to mold a championship season. And, the focus remains what Villanueva did before he arrived in Storrs.

Charles is convinced the problems rest in the fact Villanueva went to Chicago alone, which raises the influence of an agent in the eyes of the NCAA. But Fagan simply reserved the court time with a credit card, according to multiple sources, in terms of any attachment to Villanueva.

"Charlie went with his brother to Florida and they're not questioning his NBA workout (in Houston)," Charles said.

Calhoun said Villanueva tried to do everything the right way. Moore said the staff implored the Villanueva family to keep all receipts for any expenses. But they couldn't stay on top of the process the way Notre Dame did when Chris Thomas declared for the draft last spring. The Notre Dame staff had Thomas' family send in an itinerary and receipts for every trip. The university was able to explain the whole draft process to Thomas, ensuring he wouldn't get into trouble if he decided to return to school.

The rules governing early entries are also muddled, which adds to not only the delay in Villanueva's case, but how players get to where Villanueva finds himself.

A Division I underclassman can go to NBA workouts in NBA cities but he must reimburse the team for the trip if he wants to return to college. The Chicago pre-draft camp is paid for by the NBA and doesn't need to be reimbursed. Thomas just went on visits to teams and skipped Chicago.

A high school senior has the same rules, but the one difference is he can get drafted and still go to college, although the NBA team would still own his rights until a year after his eligibility expires. A college underclassmen who is drafted is ineligible to return to school.

Calhoun would like to see the rules changed to, if a player declares for the draft, he gives up his right to play in college, which is the rule for junior college players.

"If you go, you should go," Calhoun said. "We've opened up this pandora's box. This only opens up scrutiny to every single workout. When you put in a rule to allow them to fly around the country you're asking for trouble. The more I talk about it, the more frustrated I get."

Calhoun said if Gordon wants to do the same thing in the spring then he can administer the process and go down and talk to Gordon's family about it, just like Notre Dame's Thomas.

"I asked Charlie, 'Who did you ask?' He said he called Gary Charles," said Calhoun, which leaves it open as to how informed they were on the subject. "The NCAA said nothing (at the time). The NCAA has the responsibility to go to the McDonald's game and tell the guys that if any of them are thinking about declaring then here's what they need to understand -- anything that is paid for during the process could cost you. Charlie called Sonny (Vaccaro then of adidas) and his adidas family. That's what has been frustrating for me, the team and for everyone writing about this.

"There's nothing to hide, this case hasn't been solved."

And until Villanueva's eligibility is determined, the No. 1 Huskies remain a team certainly talented enough to win it all, yet one still unsure of each other's evolving roles on the way to San Antonio.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Click here to send Andy a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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