Peña looks to fill holes in frontcourt

Andrew Gordon

Prior to the successful 2008-`09 Final Four campaign, there was no question as to who the leader of the Villanova frontcourt was. Dante Cunningham rose to the occasion as the hard-working veteran that the young Wildcat big men needed. This year, with Cunningham’s departure to the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, along with the graduation of Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson, a void is left. After three years of learning from the upperclassmen, redshirt junior Antonio Peña is poised and ready to step into his new role.

As the only Big East-tested member of ‘Nova’s interior, Head Coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats will look to Peña for not only his veteran leadership, but also for his ability to perform on the big stage. Freshmen Mouphtaou Yarou and Isaiah Armwood have no collegiate experience, redshirt freshman Maurice Sutton saw no game time last year and transfer Taylor King missed all of last season for the ‘Cats due to transfer ineligibility.

Peña was not deterred by a slow start to his Villanova career, during which an unfortunate knee injury forced him to redshirt his first season on the Main Line. In his debut campaign the following season, Peña regularly saw time for the Wildcats. He eventually fought his way to a starting role for many games down the stretch, leading to an unanticipated run to the Sweet 16. He averaged 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds for his first season.

Last year, Peña played a crucial role in Villanova’s deep run into the NCAA tournament. His athleticism and strong moves in the paint did not go unnoticed as he began the season as a starter, opening 20 games for the ‘Cats throughout the season. For much of the closing stages of the 2008-09 campaign, Peña took on a more reserved role. The then-redshirt sophomore came off the bench for the majority of the NCAA tournament to make room for Clark, who showed great determination down the stretch of his senior season.

This season, it is Peña’s turn to step up down the stretch, even if it’s not in ways that will show up in the box score. With Armwood, Yarou, Sutton and King prepared to make a splash in their debut campaigns for Villanova, along with freshmen Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, the Wildcats have no shortage of new offensive firepower. Seasoned vets senior Scottie Reynolds and juniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes have also proved that they can be game breakers.

With all of the other weapons available, Peña will be looked to for what sportscasters and scouts refer to as intangibles. He will be the mentor to the new interior players and a physical defender. He will be counted on to handle the ball in pressure situations and to distribute to the multitude of capable 3-point shooters on the team. As was evident in both the Blue vs. White scrimmage and the preseason victory over Kutztown State, Peña looks noticeably more comfortable with the ball in his hands and does not hesitate to hit the short baseline jumper.

With a player as talented as Peña working in a system with half a dozen equally capable players around him, the possibility for another Final Four run is very promising.