Once upon a time, Antonio Pena was known only as one of the “other guys” on Sebastian Telfair‘s team at storied Lincoln High School (Brooklyn, NY). But after a journey that has since taken him through two years at a prep school in Connecticut, knee surgery and a redshirt season, Pena has re-emerged as one of the key players on a Villanova University squad contending for a national championship in 2010.
Pena, a 6-8 junior power forward, is averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Wildcats (22-3, 11-2 Big East), ranked No. 3 in the country before last night’s loss to UConn. In Villanova’s previous game, a win over Providence, Pena had one of his best efforts of the season, putting up 15 points and 12 boards, his sixth double-double this year.
Over the weekend I got up with Pena to talk about his team and his career:
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Dime: You guys were the underdog Final Four squad of ’09, but came into this season with a Top-5 ranking. Does that make the pressure or expectations different at all?
Antonio Pena: I mean, coming into this season we knew we were gonna be good. We have some veterans and some good younger players. If the vets like me, Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher … If we play up to our ability and learn from last year and bring along the freshmen, we know we’ll be good.
Dime: I’ve heard the term “Villanova Basketball” used by some of your teammates like a mantra. What is Villanova Basketball to you?
AP: Playing together, playing hard, playing smart, playing with pride. It basically means we’re gonna play our hardest if we’re down or if were up, that we’re gonna fight and scrap to the bitter end. Like, against Louisville (Jan. 11) we were down the whole game until the end, but we came out on top. Our goal isn’t trying to just outscore teams and use our talent — our goal is to play harder than anybody else.
Dime: Villanova is usually known for its guards, while the big guys get overlooked. How do you see your role in the system?
AP: Yeah, people say it’s a guard system and the forwards aren’t that talented. And honestly, playing with Scottie, Fish, Stokes and those guys, there’s not much a forward has to do. I just have to run the floor, rebound and do my best to get open and they’ll find me. I get a lot of easy baskets off second-chance points and just having my head up running the court. The offensive game has a lot to do with the guards.
Dime: Dante Cunningham was the most recent frontcourt player to come out of ‘Nova into the NBA. Have you been following his rookie season?
AP: Yeah, I’ve been watching him a lot. He’s been doing a lot better as the games go on. He’s been consistent with his jump shot and rebounding.
Dime: Do you two play a similar game?
AP: Not really. I think I’m more skilled offensively, but I need to have that same mindset Dante has. When he goes on the court, he’s a killer. You can’t teach that, and he already has that. I’m doing my best to get it.
Dime: When you think back to your freshman year, what part of your game has grown the most?
AP: Probably just slowing down and being more calm. Your first year, you come in trying to do so many things at once — I was getting traveling calls, tripping all over myself, stuff like that. My body’s become more lean, too. I’m able to stay on the court and bang with those physical guys more.
Dime: Some players say the speed of the college game is the toughest thing to get used to, others say it’s the strength. What was it for you?
AP: In the Big East, it’s both. One day I might go against another forward who’s not taller than me but might be faster, or the next day somebody who might be stronger.
Dime: Who are the best players you’ve gone up against this year?
AP: Luke Harangody (Notre Dame), Lazar Hayward (Marquette) and Greg Monroe (Georgetown). They all have different styles. Hayward, I like his game a lot. He’s more of a three, but he has to play the 4-5 for his team. He can shoot it, but he’s also physical down there and strong. I like that about his game.
Dime: Which Big East gym is the toughest to play in?
AP: Oh man, there’s so many of those … West Virginia, Georgetown, Syracuse … those are all really tough places to play.
Dime: How about those Big 5 games in Philly?
AP: Man, the Big 5, I consider it more like a championship atmosphere. You’re always gonna get your opponent’s best game. La Salle, Drexel, you’re gonna get their best game; that’s like their championship game.
Dime: Who needs to really step up for Villanova to win a national championship?
AP: Nobody as much as myself, that’s how I look at it. Once the leaders step up, the others will follow. Once the older dudes step up, the younger guys are definitely gonna follow.
Dime: How is Jay Wright on and off the court?
AP: Coach is a nice guy. Off the court he’s a great guy. On the court … I mean, it’s not like he’s trying to be mean, he’s just trying to push the best out of us. And if he sees that you have talent, he’ll push you ever harder.
Dime: Opinions are split on Scottie Reynolds’ NBA potential. As somebody who practices and plays with him every day, what do you think of Scottie as a pro?
AP: In my opinion, he’s a basketball player. You can put him on the court and whatever you need from him, he can do it. He can be a point guard, a two-guard … he has the heart to play the four or the five if he had to.
Dime: Take us through that game-winner Scottie hit against Pitt in the Elite Eight last year?
AP: I didn’t know how he would score, but I knew he would score once he got the ball in his hands. I’ve seen him do it too many times. When he gets the ball, he makes things happen.
Dime: What about Levance Fields‘ 80-footer at the buzzer right after that? That looked like it almost went in.
AP: Yo, man … I was just talking to somebody about that the other day! When he let the ball go, it was like time was moving slower. It looked like it was going in. I remember I grabbed somebody and was like, “Oh my God, is this going in?” I was glad he missed.
Dime: How about your own NBA prospects? What aspects of your game do you think would help you on the next level?
AP: Just from watching the NBA and seeing how they work, my main thing has to be toughness. Every team needs tough guys. It’s rare that you get a Kevin Durant or LeBron James type of talent, but teams always need guys who can be physical, play hard on defense and do the little things. I think I’m one of those kind of guys.