Tucker's Last Chance

GREENSBORO, N.C. – During Maryland’s open practice Wednesday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum, Cliff Tucker went through drills with a smile, joking and laughing with teammates. For an hour here, he looked none the part of a player who has endured a rocky senior season that bottomed out in the last month.

Cliff Tucker hopes to play without hesitation at the ACC tournament. File photo by Christopher Blunck.

Tucker, Maryland’s enigmatic guard who has for much of his career baffled coaches and fans with his up-and-down play, sees this ACC tournament as a chance to leave on a high note. He said he’s cleared his mind, put his constant worries aside and is ready to simply play without hesitation.

“It couldn’t have come at a greater time,” said Tucker, available to the media for the first time since Jan. 27. “The last two games, me not playing as well the past few months, I’ve been frustrated a lot playing cautious. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I have a clean slate. I’m more focused now, not worrying about anything. I’m just going to go out there and play and not worry about coaches or what anybody else is saying. I think it’ll help me out, and I’ll play better and it’ll help the team out.”

Tucker’s senior season has been a reflection of his inconsistent career at Maryland. He scored in double figures the first six games, including a 17-point outing against Pittsburgh in New York that seemed to indicate he was on the path to becoming a go-to scorer on the perimeter.

But four games later, at Penn State, he went scoreless, and in the next game against Temple he scored two points and was benched for much of the second half. He lost his starting spot after struggling in Maryland’s first loss to Boston College, and for a time in December and January looked like he found a comfort zone coming off the bench. He had 14 points and seven rebounds in the loss at Duke and scored 21 points in a win at Wake Forest.

It wasn’t long, though, before his play regressed again. As Maryland (18-13, 7-9 ACC) began to fall, so did Tucker. The Terps’ loss at Boston College on Feb. 12, the first of five defeats in their last seven games, was the beginning of Tucker’s worst stretch this season. He played 15 minutes in Chestnut Hill, didn’t score and committed three turnovers.

In the six games since then, he averaged 4.8 points on 11-of-33 shooting from the field and committed 11 turnovers to five assists. He became tentative, deferring on the fast break where he once thrived and took to constantly looking over at the bench expecting to be subbed out when he made an error.

“I probably shouldn’t have let myself get distracted,” Tucker said. “I let Coach get into my head too much, let other people get into my head. It kind of hurt me, it kind of hurt me in the past, especially with me worrying if I’m going to start or not, me worrying about if I’m going to come out at every mistake.

“I was worried about not making a mistake because I didn’t want to come out, worrying about if I’m going to start or not or how many minutes I’m going to play instead of just playing my game, instead of doing whatever it takes to help this team win.”

Tucker said in the last week he has talked with his mother, assistant coach Rob Ehsan, his AAU coach and those close to him. They all had the same message: Forget about the end of the season and treat the ACC tournament like his last chance.

“They tell me this is my senior year, I have no more games to waste,” he said. “They ask me all the time: ‘If the season ended today, what are you going to do? You got to go out and get a job, it’s not like anybody’s looking at you or anything.’ I still have one last time to go out with a bang not only for the team but for myself too.

“I just have to play hard. I know if I play hard I know one thing: [coach Gary Williams] will leave you in there if you’re playing hard. It’s not like he’s going to take you out if you’re doing bad but playing hard. If I’m just playing my game I know I’ll be playing hard and doing good. I think it’ll all work out fine.”

Tucker wants to play professionally next year, but he knows he has to step up his play and the team has to continue winning for him to get any attention. And if that doesn’t work out, he has an intriguing fallback.

Tucker’s high school football coach came up from El Paso, Texas, for senior day. He handed Maryland football coach Randy Edsall highlights from Tucker’s playing days at Chapin High. Tucker, who is 6-foot-6, was a heavily recruited receiver after accumulating 939 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior year.

Tucker could enroll in graduate school at Maryland and have one year of eligibility to play football.

The Maryland coaches “told me they would like to talk to me after the year, so we’ll see what happens,” Tucker said. “Right now I’m mainly focused on basketball and helping this team win.”

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