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UT s Villegas ready for takeoff

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Sammy Villegas

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Sammy Villegas racked up some frequent-flyer miles last year.

He was invited to his native Puerto Rico to try out for that country s Olympic basketball team. He was invited to Las Vegas for a combined pro/college camp.

But when he was invited to drop by for his junior season at the University of Toledo he never got off the ground.

I thought I was flying, but I hadn t really taken off yet, Villegas said.

There was too much too soon, perhaps, and when UT s season came around Villegas too often provided too little.

He was the Mid-American Conference s freshman of the year during the 2002-03 season. He started 30 games the next year and earned honorable mention all-league honors by shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and averaging 13.8 points.

But the 6-foot-6 guard was AWOL much of last season. He wasn t even a starter in 10 of the Rockets 29 games.

I think Sammy had his head buried too much in the newspapers, UT coach Stan Joplin said. He started believing what he read and heard and didn t give his best effort.

I don t think he realized how hard you have to work to be a great player.

Villegas shooting percentage dipped to what Joplin called the freezing point, and his production slipped to 9.3 points per game. At those water coolers and lunch counters where UT basketball remains a subject, the oft-asked question was, What happened to Sammy?

So, what happened to Sammy?

I got a big head, he said. I thought I d accomplished something, but I hadn t. I got kind of lazy and didn t work as hard. It affected my attitude and everything went down shooting percentage, 3-point shooting, scoring, minutes. There s nobody to blame but myself.

His overall shooting percentage went from .447 as a sophomore to .365 last season. There was a .406 to .324 swing from beyond the 3-point arc. His playing time went from 925 minutes to 700, which was fewer than 25 minutes per game.

Villegas says it s all ancient history and that, with the start of the 2005-06 season less than three weeks away, he is a new man.

That s over and I m moving on, he said. This is my senior year. It s do-or-die for me. I have a better attitude than I did for either my freshman or sophomore years. You know, you learn from your mistakes.

The Rockets were tabbed as MAC West Division favorites in a preseason media poll and Joplin knows that Villegas contributions, especially from 3-point range where he s made 203 shots during his career, will be a key factor in UT reaching that title goal.

What we saw last year, that wasn t Sammy, Joplin said. I m confident he s going to bounce back and be the player he can be.

Villegas said he s just going to let the game come to him, and that if the numbers come, that s great. But I just want to be a leader and contribute and see to it this team wins.

Villegas was in Cleveland last week for the MAC s basketball media day as a member of the preseason all-league team, which he agreed was a tad remarkable considering his most recent season.

I m glad people still believe in me, he said. The way I played last year was not me at all.

I m happy people didn t forget about me and are willing to give me another chance. I ll do my best to justify that.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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