- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Jim Calhoun wasn't sure what Charlie Villanueva was going to say after he played the freshman only nine minutes in last week's loss to Providence.
Villanueva walked into the Connecticut head coach's office afterward, sat down and told Calhoun that he was disappointed with his own play.
Calhoun probably thought a complaint was coming. The one fear that Calhoun in recruiting Villanueva was the outside influence that had propped this kid up as New York City's next legend. Calhoun thought he would have to deal with the inevitable kvetching.
But that would be out of character for Villanueva. Villanueva hadn't complained once -- not when the NCAA was investigating how he paid for his NBA draft experience or when the case dragged on for weeks, forcing him to miss the first six games of the season.
So, Calhoun tested him the only way the Huskies coach knows how.
He turned the question around on Villanueva.
"I said, 'Let's switch -- how about if you're the coach: what would you have done?' " Calhoun said. "He said, 'I'm not sure I should play more than nine minutes. I stunk.' "
Calhoun knew right then that Villanueva gets it. Unlike Cincinnati's Robert Whaley, a heralded newcomer who is grousing publicly about his lack of playing time, Villanueva is being a model citizen at Connecticut.
And if he continues to play like he did against Syracuse Monday night then he could ultimately be the difference in the Huskies winning the national title.
That's right. Villanueva is the difference, no one else.
The Connecticut staff knows what it's going to get from junior center Emeka Okafor: another double-double, just like the one he notched against the Orangemen in the 84-56 win Monday night, scoring 25 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. They also can count on a decent defensive effort from point guard Taliek Brown, and book on a strong line from guard Ben Gordon. One night it might be 3s, another it might be drives to the basket, or like Monday, it could be a bit of everything -- 13 points, 10 rebounds, two 3s, eight assists. Then Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson will combine to produce a few 3s (one each Monday night).
But Charlie? Well, he has the talent to light a team up for 20-plus points, block a flurry of shots, get to the free-throw line and get plenty of boards.
Villanueva did a bit of everything Monday by finishing with 12 points, nine boards, making 8-of-9 free throws, blocking two shots and dishing out two assists in 29 minutes. He was 2-of-8 from the field, but these other numbers made up for the six misses.
And he played defense like he did against Oklahoma during the Huskies' 27-point rout on Jan. 11. Villanueva's playing time went down after that game from 21 minutes to a season-low nine against Providence. It climbed back up to 21 at Virginia Tech on Jan. 28, and then he had his most productive game since the 11 points and seven boards against the Sooners with nine points and five boards in 20 minutes in a win over Boston College last Saturday.
"When he first got here, he couldn't guard that table over there," Calhoun said. "After the BC game I told him, 'Welcome back, where have you been the past two weeks?' "
This is the same player who scored 25 points at Rice in only the fifth game of his collegiate career. But he wasn't playing much defense back then. He is starting to now and he'll continue to earn playing time when he does.
The beauty of Villanueva on Monday was that he was a team player, picking up for freshman Josh Boone, who had taken his spot. Boone hurt his shoulder (it popped out and back twice Monday and he'll be examined Tuesday) and played only seven minutes. And he was cheering from the bench when he wasn't on the court.
"I can't complain about coach," Villanueva said. "I wasn't focused. I just tried to play hard in practice and get on the same page. I hit that freshman wall."
Villanueva said he wasn't playing with intensity and didn't take as much pride in defense early on this season.
"If I'm going to play minutes, I've got to play defense," Villanueva said. "Coach is a tough coach who is more of a defensive guy."
UConn assistant coach George Blaney said Villanueva would leave his feet too often. He would get up-faked and tried to block everything instead of being selective.
Villanueva's lanky build makes him a natural shot blocker and someone who can really bother the passing lanes. The 6-11, 230-pound Villanueva would have been perfect in Syracuse's zone defense had he chosen the Orangemen. But playing zone would have been a crutch for Villanueva. Playing straight man-to-man is making him tougher at both ends.
"What we're asking him to do is become a terrific player," Blaney said. "He could have come to a lot of programs and just played. Jim is very demanding and wants things done correctly. He should be starting to put back-to-back games [together] now."
Villanueva's thirst to get better was evident throughout Monday's blowout victory over the Orangemen. At halftime, he asked Calhoun if he should try to push Syracuse's Hakim Warrick further out to the 3-point line because he was getting to be too effective scoring in the lane.
"He has been a delight to coach," Calhoun said. "He can score against man or zone. Charlie has the best chance of the unknowns on this team to make something special happen for us. He can have a 25-point game in the (NCAA) Tournament. He can get four or five blocks. He can be a different kind of factor for us. He really could be the difference."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
When Charlie Villanueva plays like as did Monday night, it shows why UConn can win it all in March.