Freshman will play against Army

The Huskies finally have a chance to live up to the preseason hype: after having sat out the first six games of the season, Villanueva has been cleared to play.

Updated: December 6, 2003, 9:57 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Connecticut was projected to be the preseason No. 1 team even before Charlie Villanueva committed to the Huskies last spring.

Charlie Villanueva
Villanueva on the court will be a welcome sight in Storrs.
But his addition made them an overwhelming pick by the majority of media outlets to start the season atop the rankings.

The Huskies finally have a chance to live up to that preseason hype now that Villanueva, after sitting out the first six games of the season due to eligibility issues, has been cleared to play. The 6-10 McDonald's All-American will suit up for Saturday night's game against Army, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.

"We'll work him in slowly," Calhoun said Friday night, a few hours after the school got word from the NCAA's student-athlete reinstatement office that Villanueva had been cleared. "We're happy this is over. Charlie is happy. He's relieved. We're all relieved."

Neither the NCAA nor Connecticut is saying exactly what rule was broken, but Villanueva did commit a violation during his NBA draft experience. The NCAA and the school investigated how he paid for his trip and the court time during a workout at Hoops the Gym in Chicago the first week of June after declaring for the NBA draft.

The NCAA was checking to see if Villanueva's tab was picked up by agent Dan Fagan, who had set up the workout for Villanueva's friend and eventual first-round draft pick Ndudi Ebi. The NCAA also investigated how Villanueva paid for his trip to the IMG Academy in Florida and whether a friend, Nathan Blue, provided him any extra benefits beyond the definition of having a pre-existing relationship with Villanueva.

Villanueva, who originally committed to Illinois in November 2002, declared for the NBA draft but withdrew by the June 19 deadline. He also changed his commitment, opting for UConn. But the Huskies weren't able to closely administer Villanueva's draft experience since he was a committed player. Villanueva never signed a national letter of intent, meaning he was a recuitable athlete until he enrolled at Connecticut. That means UConn didn't have control over Villanueva and wasn't allowed to call him.

Villanueva was penalized 20 percent of the Huskies' maximum 28 regular-season games. The Preseason NIT -- in which UConn played four games -- counts as one collective game on that 28-game schedule. That's why Villanueva is eligible to return now. The two exhibition games the Huskies played don't count as part of the penalty, even though Villanueva sat those out too.

Connecticut had to technically declare Villanueva ineligible and sought restoration through the NCAA. The decision to declare him eligible Friday was made by the student-athlete reinstatement staff at the NCAA office and never went to the committee that is made up of representatives at member schools. Connecticut won't appeal the penalty.

"He understands that somewhere a rule was broken," Calhoun said. "If you try out for the NBA, that's the chance you take that a mistake could occur along the way. At first he yelled in excitement, but then he was relieved. This went on longer than we anticipated ..."

Calhoun said Villanueva would play power forward to help compensate for center Emeka Okafor (back) and Josh Boone (ankle), both coming back from chronic injuries. But Calhoun said he wants to use Villanueva more at small forward, with Denham Brown moving to shooting guard and Ben Gordon playing more point with Taliek Brown and Marcus Williams. Gordon could end up being the primary ballhandler, even when Brown or Williams are on the court.

"That will be a big team for us," Calhoun said. "This makes us deeper. It will take some time for (Villanueva) to adjust to college basketball. He is a magnificent passer and he can score. He'll bail us out sometimes and I wouldn't be surprised if there are times when he scores 20 points a night."

Calhoun wanted to get Villanueva meaningful minutes against lesser competition before the Huskies face a brutal January. UConn plays Army and Quinnipiac on successive Saturdays before Iona, Ball State and Massachusetts come calling to close out the month. But the Huskies play at Rice (which nearly beat Stanford and lost by four at home), Oklahoma and at North Carolina in the first three weeks of January, in addition to Big East games against Pittsburgh and Providence.

Calhoun said Villanueva's return also gives him more leverage to redshirt sophomore Marcus White this season. Despite a nagging back injury, White has played in just four games, averaging 6.8 minutes and 2.0 points and 2.3 rebounds. Calhoun said the decision will be up to White, but any future games White plays in will make it harder to seek a medical redshirt.

Other than the Preseason NIT practices in New York, Villanueva has been practicing with the team. That should help get him up to speed.

"We can now put this whole thing behind us and move forward," Calhoun said. "There is a collective sigh of relief."

The NCAA is cleaning up a few of the other eligibility issues around the country. Missouri guard Randy Pulley was cleared Wednesday but Missouri won't play him until Dec. 21. Missouri's NCAA investigation is expected to be finished within two weeks -- a probe unrelated to Pulley's individual eligibility case.

Meanwhile, Florida State isn't expected to gain eligibility for 6-10 JC transfer Diego Romero, who the NCAA has deemed played professionally in Argentina. Sources have said Florida State exhausted its appeal process and that Romero isn't eligible anywhere under the new amateurism rules. He played two years at Lon Morris (Texas) Junior College before transferring to Florida State.

Louisville is still waiting to hear on the eligibility of 6-10 junior center Nouha Diakite. Diakite's amateurism status is being investigated.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com