Malcolm Grant heard the rumors on the Villanova campus about bad grades and a terrible attitude that seemed to grow as his playing time diminished.
After all, the chat-room legions said, he had to have done something really bad to get into coach Jay Wright's doghouse. Why else wouldn't Wright play a guy who can generate offense instantly off the bench?
As he kept hearing all this gossip, however, Grant could do nothing but laugh.
"People were telling me that, and I was laughing, like, 'Are you serious?' " the Wildcats freshman guard said yesterday with a smile. "People were saying, 'Your grades,' or 'You were talking back to Coach,' all this and that. I'm laughing like it's crazy, but that's college. You live through it and you block that stuff out."
Six times, Grant has scored in double figures off the bench. The most noteworthy game was on Dec. 6, against Louisiana State, when he poured in 18 points in the final eight minutes to bring the victorious Wildcats back from a 21-point deficit. The performance earned him cult-hero status on campus.
But since scoring a career high of 23 points in a Jan. 23 loss to Rutgers, Grant hasn't played much. He saw one minute of action against St. Joseph's, then did not play against Seton Hall and Georgetown.
If he was unhappy about the inactivity, Grant, who has played a total of 29 minutes in the Wildcats' last two games, didn't show it.
"It's been tough, but I just stay positive," he said. "My teammates have spoken to me, telling me to stay positive and that they need me out there. I just try to give positive energy to the team. If I don't play, then it's the coach's decision. I know he knows what's best for the team."
Wright appreciates the way Grant has handled the ups and downs of being a freshman amid the rumors.
"When you recruit highly touted kids, it's always a part of it, especially the freshman year," he said. "There has been talk from people in New York. It's out there. What's important is how the player handles it. Malcolm's been great. We love him.
"It's just that we've struggled playing young, small guards together. That wasn't something we anticipated, but it's become a problem for us. I think when those guys are older, they're going to be able to do it better."
Wright starts 6-foot-2 Scottie Reynolds and 6-1 Corey Fisher in the backcourt but has been more likely to go with a 6-5 guard, Corey Stokes or Reggie Redding, off the bench instead of the 6-0 Grant for defense.
That compels Grant to work harder in practice.
"I want to improve my defense," he said.
Grant signed with Villanova after his senior year at Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn but attended a year of prep school before heading to the Main Line. That meant he was joining a freshman class with two highly regarded guards in Fisher and Stokes.
"I knew coming in I was the underdog and I had to prove myself," Grant said. "I used that as motivation."
Grant will be in the rotation today when the Wildcats (16-9, 6-7 Big East) face 13th-ranked Connecticut (21-5, 10-3), winner of 10 straight games, at the Wachovia Center, the site of his heroics against LSU.
But just so there's no misunderstanding, he'd like to dispel the rumors.
"I haven't gotten into trouble," he said. "I haven't done anything wrong in school. I'm doing excellent in school. I haven't talked back to my teacher. I haven't done any of that. It's crazy."
The Huskies are led by 6-2 junior A.J. Price - the son of Tony Price, the former Penn star and Big Five Hall of Famer - and 7-3 sophomore Hasheem Thabeet. Price has averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 assists during UConn's winning streak, and Thabeet is third nationally in blocked shots with 4.4 per game.