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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Going home: Villegas hopes Puerto Rico trip is right cure

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Sammy Villegas needs to see the coastline appear on the horizon. He needs to smell the salt air of the Caribbean. He needs the warmth of the tropical sun to pepper his forehead with dots of perspiration.

Most of all, the junior guard on the University of Toledo basketball team, needs to go home.

Villegas, who was struggling to find his shot and then showed up late for a team meeting and lost his starting job, gets that chance this week as the Rockets take part in a three-game tournament in Puerto Rico where UT will play Middle Tennessee State, Delaware and Auburn.

Villegas, who averaged 13.8 points last season when he shot 45 percent from the field, was held scoreless for the first time in his college career in a loss at Duke last Sunday. He is averaging just 7.8 points this season, and hitting only 29 percent (9 of 31) from 3-point range, and just 26 percent (11-42) overall.

The Rockets (1-4) and Villegas hope a dramatic change in scenery will spark a revival of their basketball fortunes.

"I have to use Puerto Rico to help me get back my game, because right now it is really slacking," Villegas said. "It's embarrassing, to tell you the truth, it is really embarrassing. It's embarrassing for me, for the team and for the coaches."

The Rockets were picked to win the Mid-American Conference championship this season, and Villegas, one of five returning starters for UT, was a major factor in those expectations.

Villegas was the MAC freshman of the year two years ago, and entering this season he had started every game but one in his UT career. He was an All-MAC honorable mention pick last year when the Rockets went 20-11 and played in the NIT.

"The past two years I've had good seasons here, and now I'm playing like I'm a freshman," Villegas said. "I don't want to say it's too much pressure, because I know I'm talented and I can play ball. I still have confidence.

But as of right now, I feel like I have a lot of pressure on me because people expect big things from the team, and we're struggling."

Villegas came to the U.S. as a 16-year-old in 1999 and he spoke just two languages - Spanish and basketball. He hoped to get an education, and use basketball as his ticket to that opportunity, and he ended up at Lima Senior High School, an awfully long way from his hometown of Carolina, just east of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.

Villegas and a friend were taken in by Richard Warren, an Allen County Common Pleas Court judge in Lima, and Warren's wife Ann, and they became his legal guardians.

He was recruited by UT coach Stan Joplin because Villegas could shoot.

Joplin has spent the last three years pushing Villegas to improve his defense, rebounding and intensity level, and that effort continues today.

Joplin said shooting slumps are easier to endure if the other elements are at work.

"I've told Sammy that you can do a lot more things than just shoot the basketball - you can become a more complete player, and not be one-dimensional," Joplin said.

"Right now Sammy is struggling, and he is basing everything on his shot and whether or not it goes in."

The 6-6 Villegas is a shooter down to his core. He hit 68 3-pointers as a redshirt freshman in 2002-03, and hit 80 more last season. He has the lift, extension and rotation of the textbook jump shot, and takes an extremely quick elevator to the apex.

Joplin said the shooting funk Villegas finds himself in might be due to him becoming too casual about his shot.

"We've been trying to figure out what is going on, and it looks like sometimes he doesn't explode into his shot like he should," Joplin said.

"Good shooters shoot the same way, every time, and some how, some way, we have to get Sammy back on track."

Joplin said he expects to start Villegas when the Rockets open the San Juan Shootout against Middle Tennessee State tomorrow morning. Villegas, who is third on UT's career 3-point list with almost two full seasons to play, lost his starting job before the third game of the season.

"I'm a little concerned that since he'll be back home, Sammy will try and do it all, but this whole deal was about getting him a chance to play down there in front of his family and friends," Joplin said. "He's fighting himself right now, but when Sammy is aggressive and doesn't force things, he 'll be fine."

Villegas took the benching in stride, and hopes to win back the trust of his coach, and further bolster his own confidence, with a strong outing in his home country.

"I didn't like it when I didn't start, but I tried to keep doing my thing," Villegas said.

"I was embarrassed, but that was part of me not producing. I have apologized to coach for that."

His family - mother, father and an older sister - and friends in Puerto Rico have never seen him play a college game, other than a couple times on television.

His U.S. family - the UT team and coaches, friends and fans - will meet his Puerto Rican family on this trip.

"It's like a dream. Here I come - I'll be like a superstar back home. People will buy tickets to come watch me play," Villegas said.

"It's going to be hot, and the guys say there'll be lots of pretty girls down there, but what would make it great is if we can win this thing. This tournament could really help us. Physically, we're fine. We just have to get it into our heads that we can do this."

Villegas expects to be in his comfort zone from the moment he steps off the plane.

"It's going to make a lot of things right, if we can win three games down there," he said. "Right now, I'm struggling real bad, and I don't even look like a player out there. But I'm going to be very demanding of myself, and I 'll be comfortable playing in front of my people. I've looked forward to this for a long time, and I think a trip home to Puerto Rico is just what I need right now."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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