GREENSBORO, N.C. —- One apparent development of the final five weeks of Maryland’s regular season was the decline of Cliff Tucker.
The senior guard’s minutes and production have plummeted in the second half of conference play as freshmen Terrell Stoglin and Pe’Shon Howard earned more playing time. Tucker, as was often the case earlier in his career, had the look of a man looking over his shoulder.
Wednesday, he acknowledged as much after the seventh-seeded Terrapins (18-13) worked out at the Greensboro Coliseum on the eve of the ACC tournament.
“It’s the same stuff we talked about over the last four years,” Tucker said. “I tried my hardest not to do it. It just gets to me at times.”
Indeed, it’s a theme Tucker never fully escaped in his four seasons in College Park. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t identify the problem; he admitted at various stages of the last three seasons it was difficult to play without the fear of getting yanked over a single mistake.
That shouldn’t have been a major issue in his final year considering the graduation of Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes. Playing time was readily available in the backcourt, and initially Tucker established himself as Maryland’s top perimeter scorer.
Tucker was averaging 11.7 points on 45.2 percent shooting after Maryland’s Jan. 27 victory at Virginia. But in the 11 games since, he’s averaged 5.5 points on 35.9 percent shooting (23 for 64).
“It’s basically cautiousness and me not going out there and playing my game,” Tucker said. “It’s me worrying about other stuff —- me worrying about coach [Gary Williams], worrying about whether I’m starting or not, when I’m in there worrying if he’s going to take me out with every little mistake. When I play like that, you can tell I’m cautious and I’m trying not to make a mistake. I’m just not playing my game. I think that’s what hurt me the last month of the season.”
Gradually, his minutes were cut, culminating in a seven-minute cameo last week at Miami. He was held scoreless twice in the last month, and hasn’t scored more than 10 points in that stretch.
While his on-court performance declined, Tucker remains fully aware of how much is riding on the possibility of a resurgence —- not just for Maryland this weekend, but also for himself in the long run.
“I kind of have to go with the flow,” said Tucker, who is on track to earn a degree in family science this semester . “I’m a senior. I can’t be pouting. … The most important thing is this is my last year. It’s not like I can pout the rest of this ACC tournament and come back next year and play. I’m done after this. If I don’t do well, I’m going to have to go out and get a regular job after this. That’s why I’m saying I’m just trying to clear my mind. Hopefully, I’ll have a clean slate.”
The last chance is probably in Greensboro, starting with Thursday’s first round game against N.C. State. Without an extended run, Tucker’s lasting legacy for the Terps will likely be a pair of strong performances against North Carolina as a sophomore, a game-winning shot against Georgia Tech as a junior and a so-so senior year.
Unless, that is, Tucker’s final opportunity pays off in the next four days.
“It’s been kind of a rough season, off and on, me playing good and me playing bad and the frustration with that,” Tucker said. “Now that the regular season is over, this is our last ACC tournament. I feel like I’m starting fresh. I’m real excited. I feel like it’s back on Oct. 15.”
—- Patrick Stevens