Charles looks to flex more serious side

You think of Tina Charles as Connecticut's power inside, a key figure in the hope for a repeat NCAA title, a good bet as the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in April, right?

Sure enough, she's all of that. But it wouldn't really be too big of a stretch to envision her in any of these scenarios.

The imposing yet benevolent figure is walking her beat on the streets of New York City. "Good afternoon, Officer Charles!" a shopkeeper calls. "A lot of weather we're having, huh?"

Or maybe it could be this.

The crime-scene investigator stares intently at the facts on the dry-erase board. The connection is there somewhere, the missing piece to determine the culprit.

Or perhaps it's this.

The forensics expert/psychologist stands before the classroom, ready to explain some finer points of dealing with criminal profiling.

"When I was little, I always used to tell my mom I wanted to be a cop," Charles said. "Honestly, I think if I wasn't playing basketball and was just a regular student, I would want to be involved in being a police officer, especially back in New York.

"I'm majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology and criminology. I'd like to be a forensic psychologist. I watch all the 'CSIs,' 'Law and Order,' 'Cold Case Files,' 'The First 48,' 'Snapped.' All those kind of gruesome shows."

She said teammate Tiffany Hayes also watches with her, as both are interested in solving the cases.

"What attracts me toward it," Charles said, "is figuring out what triggers that behavior."

Of course, this might be where UConn coach Geno Auriemma would interrupt with one of his trademark wisecracks about having needed a psychologist to figure out Charles.

Actually, though, in all seriousness he would acknowledge it wasn't that difficult. Charles, a 6-foot-4 senior center, came to UConn in 2006 as the consensus national player of the year out of Christ The King High School in New York.

Auriemma thought she could be as good as any post player he'd had in his program. But taking that talent to the floor and reaching your potential game after game is a difficult process for almost any elite college athlete.

Perhaps it was more so with Charles for a couple of reasons. UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey thinks that it was challenging for Charles to adjust to the high expectations of her as soon as she arrived.

As Dailey put it, "Generally when you come into a program like ours as a freshman, you have a couple of people ahead of you, and you have some time to develop. But we needed Tina to be really good right away."

But another factor is that Charles has a quirky sense of humor and even "lightness" to her -- which may seem incongruent with her affinity for crime shows -- that didn't necessarily lend itself right away to being all-business at the required times.

Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant was an assistant on the USA Basketball team that won the World University Games gold medal this past summer behind Charles' team-best scoring (16.1) and rebounding (8.1).

"She's a fun personality -- I think it helps her on the court," Merchant said. "She has that approach to life a little bit. As a coach, you probably always want them to be so intense and serious. But I think the lighter side of Tina really helps with balance.

"She's a spectacular talent. And in the month that I spent with her, it was neat to see her every day get more and more comfortable. It kind of parallels her career at UConn. The longer she's been in that system and understanding the expectations, you can just see her grow exponentially. And that's what we saw, too, this summer."

Charles' close friend and fellow senior teammate Kaili McLaren said she has watched Charles "coming out of her shell" each year.

"It's funny, because freshman year, it seemed like everything she did, I got in trouble for. And everything I did, she got in trouble for," McLaren said, laughing. "We got grouped together in a lot of things. Tina would make some steps forward and then take steps back. We'd go to our room, and you could tell she was frustrated and we'd talk about it.

"She'd say she was thinking too much, but after a while, she just went out and played and stopped dwelling on it. Once she started playing the way she could play, Tina became unstoppable."

Charles says a tipping point, if you will, came last season when Auriemma didn't hesitate to single out how crucial her performance was.

"In front of everybody," Charles said, "he just said, 'If we win a national championship, it's going to be because of Tina. And if we lose it, it's because of Tina.' He was putting that pressure on my shoulders, and I wanted to show him and my teammates they could count on me."

Critics of Auriemma -- and there always are some -- would point to this as his being too harsh. But Auriemma hasn't won six NCAA titles without knowing how to press the right buttons in motivating people.

If he thought Charles was going to freak out hearing something like that, he wouldn't have said it. He knew she needed something that dramatically stark to really accept the task at hand was that important.

Besides, Charles was aware of her own history. Her freshman season, she'd missed all five of her shots from the field and scored just one point in UConn's Elite Eight loss to LSU.

As a sophomore, her shooting improved -- 4-of-5 -- in the national semifinal game against Stanford. But the Huskies needed even more than her nine points and six rebounds in that loss.

Then in the 2009 Final Four, Charles did everything she needed to do, capped by a 25-point, 19-rebound performance in the championship game against Louisville.

"I definitely reflected on it," she said. "After we won, we went back to the hotel to celebrate, and I took time to myself in my room and thought about everything the team had gone through. Coming off the loss to Stanford [in 2008], we wanted to make everything right."

Charles got the chance to speak on the phone with one of her heroes, President Barack Obama, after that game.

"It was so exciting," she said. "And then I was really happy we were going to get a chance to meet him. Our team really enjoyed that; he was able to shoot baskets with us, and we got a tour of the White House."

Charles would like to go again next year. But if there's one thing she understands very well now, it's the importance of taking each step toward a potential national championship seriously.

She averaged 16.5 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, with a team-best 62 blocked shots. She enters this season as a consensus first-team All-American.

And her continued improvement is important to more than just UConn and her future WNBA team. As long as she stays healthy, Charles should be a very strong candidate to make the U.S. squad for the 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympics. With Lisa Leslie's retirement, the play of younger centers will be imperative for the Americans.

Auriemma is the national team's coach now, and worked with Charles in that capacity during the recent training camp and exhibition games in late September/early October.

"She learned a lot about herself," Auriemma said. "She saw the level that's out there that she has to aspire to be at and how you get to that level."

Charles knows there's a lot yet to achieve -- hey, and maybe she really will get into police work someday. But the most immediate goal is doing what she and her team did last season. Maybe doing it even better, if you really can be better than undefeated.

"Mentally, I always have to have my mind right," she said. "That's showing up for every game, not just a top-25 team. No matter what I had to go through to get here -- getting kicked out of practice or whatever -- I never let it get me down. I always wanted to get better."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.