A worn-out Greivis Vasquez passed on a late-night trip to the gym Friday. But his typical partner for such extra sessions had other ideas, so determined he was to make a difference the next day for Maryland.
Undeterred, Cliff Tucker rounded up a couple of team managers to collect his missed shots at Comcast Center. The next day, he didn’t leave many errant tries for others to chase down.
So continued the re-emergence of the guard who began the season as a starter and gradually disappeared as December turned into January. Tucker scored a career-high 22 points in Saturday’s upset of North Carolina, further heralding his leap from aggravated role player to key cog for the Terrapins (17-9, 6-6 ACC), who play host to No. 7 Duke (22-5, 8-4) on Wednesday.
“I have no doubt that he can be a special player for us this year,” Vasquez gushed Tuesday. “He’s a sophomore. He’s still young and he’s got a lot to learn, but he’ll be good for us.”
Tucker’s talent rarely warranted questioning as he transitioned from two-sport star in El Paso, Texas, to Division I basketball player in the ACC. But his diminished role in the middle of the season was unusual, and coach Gary Williams would usually answer questions about Tucker with a reference to practice performance.
Eventually, Tucker’s role in games diminished to nothing. He didn’t appear in the Jan. 31 defeat of Miami, a bottoming out for a player who seemed too crucial to the Terps’ success only a few months earlier.
Frustrated with his marginalized place in the rotation and with no playing time left to risk, Tucker spoke out about his shrinking place in the rotation.
“I was down, and a lot of people start to bug you, tell you to transfer and things like that,” Tucker said. “I was getting phone calls every night from people telling me to work hard and to go talk to Coach and things like that. It was real hard. Coach Williams just sat me down and said whenever I get in a game, whether it’s one minute or two minutes, I just have to take advantage of the minutes.”
So he has. He scored 18 points at North Carolina three days after publicly asking why he wasn’t playing, earning a place back in Williams’ rotation.
Tucker is unlikely to relinquish it this time. He had a subtle all-around performance filled with well-executed screens, a timely blocked shot and a slick pass to set up a Landon Milbourne dunk in a Feb. 14 defeat of Virginia Tech. It was a reflection of an unselfish approach Tucker said his parents instilled in him and easily translated to basketball.
He can still score, and he dropped five 3-pointers on Saturday to help provide Maryland with a vital late-season victory.
“That meant a lot to me, because I finally proved to myself I could actually play and actually be a good player for this team,” Tucker said.
With those doubts erased, the questions of where Tucker will flourish have dissipated. He is averaging 10.6 points and 19 minutes since the Miami game, and his athleticism lends a desired element to a roster operating without an ideal amount of size.
Just as importantly, he backed up his talk. Tucker channeled his energy into improving Maryland’s postseason prospects, in the process forcing Williams to re-evaluate Tucker’s role.
“I think not playing for Cliff for probably the first time in his career allowed him to see he liked the game and that he was willing to work a little harder at the game,” Williams said. “In terms of his athletic ability and his topside, he’s going to be a very good player in this league the next couple years.”