Photo: Tom Sapiano

Small point guard fills big shoes

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By Steve Petrick

The student whose face is painted Laurentian’s blue and gold yells from the bleachers at the small player in his Ryerson Rams basketball uniform. “You’re too short to go to the hoop,” the student shouts. “You’re too short.” In stature, maybe. In his abilities, well, the fan who hopped on a bus from Sudbury to support his team will have to wait and see. Karlo Villanueva is busy trying to recoup. The freshman guard’s attempt at a lay-up has been blocked by a Laurentian Voyageur, to the delight of the opposing teams’ fans sitting in Kerr gym. But the play remains in the Voyageurs’ end and moments later Villanueva draws a foul and is sent to the free-throw line. “Hey No. 21, stand up,” the taunts continue. “Where are your toys?”

Villanueva doesn’t hear a thing, or if he does, he doesn’t let it faze him. His eyes are focused on the net. His arms extend upward and like a fisherman snapping his line into the water, he shoots. The ball lands clear through the net. The jeering stops.

Nothing throws Villanueva off his game, not the heckling, not his height, not his opponents’ heights. Odds are, if Villanueva was an average player, he probably wouldn’t even be on the floor. He’s 18, but with his chubby cheeks, he could easily pass for 14. Watch him perform on the court and you might think he’s a 20-something pro.

It’s a good thing the Rams signed him on. Amid country-wide competition for the point guard, Ryerson managed to land someone who might help them take the Rams past the wall they his last season, when the team ruined its almost flawless regular-season record with a shocking first-round playoff loss to Queen’s University. Rather than prepare for the next season, the team analyzed how the loss would damage their chances at professional careers. By adding Villanueva, the Rams scored the ultimate team player — one who’d rather not talk about personal statistics, even though he could. By Monday, Villanueva had played in six Ontario University Athletics regular-season matches and was averaging 10.6 points and 3.5 assists per game. Ryerson won five of those games, one being the match against Laurentian.

The fan with the painted face had littel reason to taunt Villanueva once he hit the foul shot. The Rams went on to win the game 77-52. “I think it’s kind of flattering — the fact that they tease you,” Villanueva said. “They notice you, but you don’t notice them. I stood right beside on fan, he said, ‘Holy God I’m taller than you sitting.’ It was funny.” Villanueva talks almost as fast as he moves. His speed makes him impossible to miss on the court. In defence he always lunges toward the man he’s covering and often steals the ball. On offence, he dribbles the ball so close to the ground you can hardly see it move. He sometimes lures opponents toward him and when they draw near he bounces a pass underneath their arms to a teammate who’s open below the net. That’s if he doesn’t take the ball the to net himself. Since he’s too short to go over players who cover him he zipa underneath their armpits, hits the ball off the glass and into the hoop.

Noy Villanueva has been watching his son make these moves for years. From the time Karlo started playing basketball, as a Grade 3 student at Vancouver College, until he graduated from Richmond Secondary School, in Richmond, B.C., Noy never missed a game.

His son’s moving halfway across the country didn’t quell his loyalty. Noy booked time off work to attend the Rams’ first exhibition game in October, a match against the George Brown College Huskies. Only a handful of fans attended that night. Most came to see who Ryerson has recruited to replace last year’s all-star point guard, Sam Gilbert, who left the team to pursue a pro career. By halftime, the fans had their answer. Just before the buzzer sounded, Villanueva stripped the ball from a Husky at half-court and went in alone for an easy basket. The crowd have him a standing ovation, then gathered around Noy to ask the inevitable question. “How did your son become so good?”

“A lot of parents ask me that,” is Noy’s reply. “There really isn’t a secret formula or anything like that. It’s real sheer hard work. He has an immense love for the game.”

Noy and his wife, Leila Villanueva, recognized their son’s talent at an early age. At eight he tried to take on his older and taller brother, Justin, and his best friend in two-on-one games. Within a few years he was beating them. As a preteen, he broke his right arm and learned to dribble with his left. In Grade 9, he led Vancouver College’s junior team to a provincial championship and was named British Columbia’s high school player of the year. The next year he left the school to attend Richmond — a school with a team that hadn’t won a game the previous season — and earned the same two honours.

In Villanueva’s final two seasons, the Richmond Colts didn’t lose a regular season game, although both years they lost in the provincial championship tournament. Scouts from Canadian and American universities started to notice Villanueva, as did the British Columbia press. The scouts loved his passion and stealing — and his speed. The press loved his charming smile and polite manners off the court. Recruiters with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds just loved him. They spent hours trying to lure him to their school. “He’s a local kid who’s pretty popular,” UBC recruiter Steve McGilligan said. “He would have drawn huge crowds.”

But no school showed more persistence in recruiting him than Ryerson. When the Rams’ assistant coach Bob Marsh saw Villanueva for the first time at a recruitment camp in Toronto last winter, he knew he had to get him. “At the time he was 17 years old,” Marsh said. “And I thought he was the most composed point guard at the camp.”

The Rams needed a point guard like Villanueva to make up for an expected exodus of star players. To persuade him to come, the team bought him a plane ticket to Toronto in the summer so he could tour the campus and scrimmage with other players.

He returned home impressed, but sat on the fence as long as he could. He’d been accepted to business programs at Ryerson, the University of Western Ontario and UBC. He also had a scholarship offer from Southern Utah University that was worth considering. But in late August, Villanueva finally realized, “Ryerson never gave me a reason why I shouldn’t come.”

It didn’t take long for him to adjust to university play. In a preseason game against the University of Waterloo, Villanueva stayed on the floor the whole game and helped Ryerson to an 85-77 win. Two weeks later, he led Ryerson scorers with 25 points in an 80-72 regular-season win over Bishop’s University.

Games like this make Rams head coach Terry Haggerty confident Villanueva will challenge for the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union’s rookie-of-the-year award. “He’s our No. 1 guy and he’s going to get a lot of minutes,” Haggerty said. “Everyone’s going to see him play and go, ‘Holy shit, there’s this 18-year-old kid who’s dynamite.’”

Villanueva insists individual honours are not why he plays. As a point guard, his job is to let others get the glory — pass the the ball, let them score the points. His high school coach once told him he was on the court to make the other players happy. “If everyone’s happy,” Villanueva says, “everyone’s playing well.”

But credit is not something Villanueva can avoid. During his final year of high school, two 1,000-word stories on him appeared in The Vancouver Sun. He knows why. He’s five-foot-three. It makes for an amazing story. But Villanueva will tell you there’s no disadvantage to being short. Instead of slam-dunking the basketball over someone’s head, you steal the ball from under his feet.

If there’s anything remarkable about Villanueva, it’s the composure he has for a player his age. He said he didn’t get nervous before his first university game, and the free throw he made against Laurentian while fans were taunting him — that was easy.

In a preseason tournament at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Rams had two close games. Both times the team gave Villanueva the ball in the dying minutes. One time he assisted on the basket that clinched the win, the other time he set up the shot that would have won the game. “What people thought was amazing,” Haggerty said, “was that we gave the ball to an 18-year-old kid and he made a really good decision.” As a coach of 20 years, Haggerty know to appreciate that kind of execution under pressure. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

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