ATHLETES JUST want to compete. Contribute, be a part of something. It's what they do.

And when that's taken away from them, particularly for the first time, it's never an easy void to tackle.

Antonio Pena, 6-8 and mobile, brings obvious skills to the forward spot. He arrived at Villanova in 2006, as part of a strong recruiting class. All Pena wanted to do was help, fit in, whatever was needed and/or asked of him.

Those plans had to be put on hold before he ever got the chance.

The New York City product suffered a minor injury to his left knee in early December of what would have been his freshman season. He underwent arthroscopic surgery and decided to redshirt, even though he'd been cleared to practice by Christmas. Which meant he could only sit and watch as a Wildcat program that was very much in transition won 22 games before losing to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"You can't prepare yourself for that," said Pena, a teammate of Sebastian Telfair at Brooklyn's Lincoln High who spent 2 years at St. Thomas More Prep in Connecticut, which once sent Gary Buchanan to the Main Line. "Things happen, you know. It just happened to me. You never think it's going to be you.

"At first you keep asking yourself, 'Why did I have to get hurt?' You want to do something right away. I'm a better player than a watcher. You're always thinking, 'God, maybe I could've made a difference.' It changed my life.

"You don't realize how important something is to you, until it's not there anymore."

If he wanted inspiration, he didn't have to look far. As an eighth-grader he already was a big fan of Curtis Sumpter, the best player in his borough at the time. If anyone knew adversity it was the Wildcats' fifth-year senior, who had made it back from not one but a pair of serious knee injuries.

"I knew if he could handle all that, then I could deal with one speed bump," Pena said. "He'd gone through so much, and kept fighting even when a lot of people said he should've just given up . . . My teammates showed me a lot of love. A lot of people struggle to do things on their own. I had so many people telling me it would be all right. How could I not think that way?

"My mother said some people never have to deal with any real problems their whole life. There was no reason it had to happen. At some point, you understand that if that's the worst thing that ever happens to you as a man, maybe it's not going to be so bad after all."

So Pena waited his turn. On a nationally ranked club (13-4, 3-3 Big East) that relies on youth and is still searching for an identity, he's gradually emerged as a vital part of the equation. Averaging 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 15.4 minutes a game, he's now starting, in part because former roommate Casiem Drummond has a stress fracture in his right foot.

Pena had a forgettable night in Wednesday's upset loss at Rutgers. He was hardly alone. But on a team that's desperate for a low-post presence, especially at the offensive end, he might at least be able to provide some answers.

The Wildcats host Notre Dame (13-4, 3-2) tomorrow at noon at the Wachovia Center. In the conference, the Irish are 0-2 on the road. But in league games, forward Luke Harangody is averaging a Big East-high 22 points. And he's first in rebounding, at 11.

What matchup doesn't contain some type of challenge?

"When you're not playing, it becomes a grind," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. " 'Tone' accepted it as well as anyone. He didn't look at it as just being about him. He was learning, looking ahead to this year."

It's a process. Individually, collectively. Talent aside, there are steps along the way. Unforeseen hurdles, too.

"When you start playing again, you wonder if you're going to be the same," said Pena, who has had highs of 17 points (twice) and nine rebounds. "I'm starting to feel more comfortable all the time. When I look back on it now, I kind of say, 'Thank you' for what happened. That says a lot."

Pena is now doing his best to keep Drummond as positive as possible. It's why they call it a team.

"He was playing so well, then he felt pain," Pena said. "He gets down sometimes. It's normal. That's what you think about, all day. It's the worst thing you can do. So I tell him it's going to work out."

Athlete to athlete. *