Being UConn's go-to player not part of Gay's game plan

March 24, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Washington -- Rudy Gay doesn't have a lot on his mind right now. After all, these next two games only determine whether his Connecticut team fulfills its destiny and reaches the Final Four, or whether it brands itself an underachieving bust.

Not that it's all riding on him, though - even though his coach, the Hall of Famer with two NCAA championships, has alternately pleaded, cajoled and ordered him to be more aggressive, to exploit the greatest talent on the nation's most talented team.

And doing all of this practically in his own backyard - with his family and friends set to commute from Baltimore to Verizon Center tonight for the regional semifinal and, they all hope, Sunday's final - is not a big deal.

Honestly, it's not.

On the eve of the biggest game of his career, with more attention paid to him off the court than ever before and even more expected to be paid on the court, Rudy Gay looked and sounded no different than he ever has. Still shy, still reserved, still borderline nonchalant about the weight being set on his 19-year-old shoulders by everyone from Northwest D.C. to Storrs, Conn.

Tonight, when Connecticut faces Washington in the Sweet 16, the country will be looking on to see if the Huskies have their long-awaited "bust-out" game, as coach Jim Calhoun put it yesterday, and if Gay, with all that seemingly untapped ability teasing everybody, can bust out along with them.

Gay's response? Maybe, if it doesn't shut anyone else off and if it helps us win.

At least he came off that way as he spoke to a roomful of reporters from a stage set up on the Wizards' practice court, and as he sat in a folding chair and leaned against a wall in the locker room, pinned back by a horde of local reporters and the usual pack that follows the Huskies.

He had heard much of the talk long before, of his needing to take over more - as Calhoun said as recently as last weekend after the second-round win over Kentucky in Philadelphia - and of UConn's seeming to have sleepwalked through the tourney.

The demand to take over games - and the sense of being singled out by Calhoun - isn't exactly new as evidenced by his reaction to the mention of it, a slow smile and a short chuckle.

"It's something I agreed to when I signed the letter of intent. It's what I knew," Gay said. "He's going to try to motivate you. He's good at that. And for him to come out and say I need to take more shots, that's an honor, with the players he'd had, that he actually thinks I can do something like that. So I just go out there and do the best I can for him."

Apparently, though, there's a gap between Gay's version of his best and Calhoun's. Not to doubt Gay's effort, but his desire to lead, as a sophomore on a loaded veteran team, is open to debate.

"Bottom line is, yeah, he needs to be more assertive," Calhoun said last week. "As I keep saying, he's an incredibly talented kid, but he's a pretty young kid, he really is."

That instinct to defer to his elders may be at the root of the issue. Gay does speak respectfully of his teammates - understandably so - when discussing his approach to games.

"With a team like this, it's going to ride whoever's hot, whoever's doing the best for the team," he said, "whether it's me, Denham, Rashad [Brown and Anderson, respectively, both seniors] or anybody.

"It's good to be on a team that has that kind of versatility," he continued.

As long as it's all clicking. It may just be a perception that Connecticut isn't playing up to its potential, but it's a perception shared, even fed, by the coach, who yesterday said his team has "probably had five complete games all year," none of them so far in this tournament.

"Forget the chronological ages of players," he said. "This by nature has not been quite as mature a team as I would like."

If that's the case, it's no surprise that Calhoun doesn't hesitate to urge a sophomore to take over more. All things being equal, he seems to say, let the best player lead the way. If it means it's on him to win or lose the championship, so be it.

Except that it's clearly not in Gay's nature, to use Calhoun's phrase, to be that player, at least not yet. At least Gay doesn't necessarily think so, not even when asked if he can obey his coach's commands and still blend in with his teammates.

"It's not just taking shots, it's taking smart shots," he said. "We have a lot of people on this team that can take and make shots. It would be dumb of me to take all the shots."

These varying approaches will be put to the test tonight, to make sure there is a Sunday in Connecticut's future, and another day in Gay's visit home.

Not a big deal, though.

Read David Steele's blog at

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