VILLANOVA'S Dante Cunningham is many things. His coach, Jay Wright, calls him a warrior. He's hardly alone in that assessment. The 6-8 senior forward grinds, leads, tackles jobs large, small and dirty, is just the kind of guy you want watching your back.

Mostly, though, he has operated right under the radar. His words.

"My whole life, I've never been like the complete star player," Cunningham said. "That's not necessarily OK, but it's almost allowed me to break out. I'm not getting all the pressure. Not that I wouldn't love to be that person.

"Sometimes, it just doesn't work out that way. You have to play with what you've got."

So play he does. Basically at one speed. And who knows where the 18th-ranked Wildcats (11-1) would be without him? Not just because of the grunt work. This season, he's become more like that person.

"I'm the same Dante," he said, with a smile. "But it does seem like there's a lot more people in general coming up to me and saying hello, things like that. I've always been told to keep it in perspective. As soon as something goes bad, they may not know who I am. You have to stay grounded.

"There's no other way to approach it."

A former Washington Post Metropolitan Player of the Year at Potomac (Md.) High, he averaged just under 20 minutes a game coming off the bench as a freshman for a Wildcats team that made it to the Final Eight. The last two seasons, he evolved into someone who was dependable yet didn't necessarily stick out.

On a team that doesn't have a real center, that role has obviously expanded.

Now he's scoring a team-best 17.3 points, nearly seven points more than last season, on 58 percent shooting. Before, much of what he gave you was close to the basket. These days, he's got a midrange jumper that looks good every time it goes up. He's also getting a team-high 7.8 rebounds. While the Wildcats haven't played many Big East-caliber opponents, he did have 23 points and 12 rebounds against Texas in their lone blemish.

Still, there's something about him that hasn't changed.

"Within our team, we understand what everyone does," Cunningham said. "We're not a pretty team. We have our ugly moments. We're just trying to get it done.

"We've got five or six players who can put up 20 on any given night. It doesn't matter to us. You still need to do the other stuff. For us to be better, I needed to score more. That doesn't mean you don't put any less into defense or rebounding or whatever.

"I know the younger guys are looking at me, to see how I handle all that. Scottie [Reynolds] had some games where he maybe scored seven or eight. But he was moving the ball, getting six, seven assists, with no turnovers, making stops, doing everything a point guard can do. That's what we want to see. It's what Villanova basketball's supposed to be about."

The personal transformation has been 4 years in the making.

"We wanted him to be a little more assertive," Wright said. "We talked about it. He'd score some, and then we'd forget about him. And he wouldn't say anything. He comes from a strong military background. But he was more the soldier than he was the officer. Now, there's a difference.

"I think his dad told him he should find me, instead of the other way around. Now he's in here almost every day, just checking in to see how everything's going. It's about us, not him. And everyone recognizes the confidence he's playing with. We're looking for him. We need him to be a go-to guy . . .

"Coach [Larry] Brown would be at practice all the time, and he'd say, 'This kid can play in the NBA. He can guard anybody.' Other people are starting to see that, too. Once that happens, you wonder how they'll handle it. But I really trust his perspective."

His older sister Davalyn played one season in the WNBA and played professionally overseas. Dante wants to be a pro as well, whether it's here or overseas. Yet the next level isn't something he's remotely preoccupied with. There's too much left to accomplish at Villanova.

"Coach tells us to play every game like it's our last, and at the end of the day you look back and see what you did well," Cunningham said. "My motivation is understanding what this team needs.

"There are no guarantees in life. I'll worry about what comes next, when that time arrives. All I know is, the hard work you put in usually pays off. The next game's enough for me. It's all good."

The Wildcats host Temple on Monday. They've won 17 of their last 18 in the Big 5, and three straight over the Owls. Their conference opener is Jan. 1, at Marquette.

"When you're a senior in most programs, they let you do what you want," Cunningham said. "Here, coach is on you even harder. He expects you to do a lot more. If the team does something wrong, it's your fault. I understood what was going to happen because I'd seen it.

"I can definitely see how I've learned. I'm kind of quiet. But not on the court. We have to be on the same page. And that starts with the guys who've been here the longest. I want them to know they can lean on me."

Tangibly, and otherwise. Maybe in ways and to degrees that even go beyond what they thought he had in him. *