By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009
Laughter spilled out the doorway of the home locker room at Comcast Center late Saturday night, an indication of the tension-free atmosphere that permeated the Maryland men's basketball team's domain. After dropping four of five games and dealing with several off-the-court distractions, the Terrapins had held on to a lead and claimed victory over Miami. But in front of at least one stall, the mood was not equally jubilant.
Sophomore guard Cliff Tucker made comments after the win revealing frustration over his lack of playing time in the past few months. Tucker, who was a healthy scratch Saturday night for the first time this season, started the first five games of the year before being resigned to a reserve role.
Tucker's sentiments -- that he doesn't understand why he isn't playing more and that he believes he is working hard enough to garner more court time -- are common among bench players for struggling teams. Despite contentions from coaches and close friends that Tucker could be competing harder and taking the game more seriously, he believes he can contribute to a team that, prior to Saturday's win, was reeling.
"I don't know Cliff to just say he's doing something when he's not doing it," said Regina Tucker, Cliff's mother. "I know he loves the game; he loves basketball. And he likes where he's at. This is why he chose this school. Because it's somewhere he wanted to be. He doesn't want to quit because he likes the team and he did like the coaches. Now he's just getting discouraged because he's used to playing. He went from starting to no time, and no one can tell him why."
A voice message and a text message left on Tucker's cellphone yesterday were not immediately returned. Tucker averaged 16.6 minutes per game during his five starts and has averaged 8.4 minutes per game since then.
"There's nothing wrong with Cliff," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said yesterday in a brief phone interview. "He practiced today. He had a good practice. There's nothing wrong with Cliff. That's it. I have no comments to make. Goodbye."
The Washington Times first reported Tucker's complaints yesterday.
Regina Tucker, who, like her husband, Clifton Sr., made a career in the Army, said she feels for her son, but that this is an experience he has to deal with on his own. She implored Cliff Tucker to speak to Williams to discover the cause of the problem, which he has done twice. She knows that was hard for her son, who like most of his teammates is quiet by nature.
Much as the entire team has had to come to grips with a season wrought with unfulfilled opportunities, so too has Tucker had to deal with an unattractive reality.
"He's just thinking too much," said Tom Shukit, who coached Tucker at Chapin High School in El Paso and maintains regular contact with the player. "Sometimes, it just looks like he's lost out on the floor, like he's just going through the motions."
Shukit visited with Williams before attending Maryland's home game against American on Dec. 22. Shukit said Williams told him it did not appear Tucker was taking the game as seriously as necessary at the Division I level.
After the game, in which Tucker scored seven points in 17 minutes, Shukit passed along Williams's comments while dining with Tucker, one of Tucker's cousins and a friend at an Applebee's in College Park. Tucker assured Shukit he could make the necessary adjustments. Shukit said that while Tucker has shared his continued frustrations in text messages to Shukit's wife, the coach has not spoken to his former player since then.
Following a Jan. 20 win over Virginia in which Tucker played four minutes, junior guard Greivis Vasquez spoke to his beleaguered teammate.
"I was telling Cliff, I know you feel like you should be playing more. You just got to come to practice and kick somebody's butt and keep fighting. Life is not easy. You can be on the top for a little bit and then just come right down to the bottom, but you're still working. You can't give up," Vasquez said. "He's got to understand how much we need him."
Regina Tucker said that despite her son's current dissatisfaction, she does not expect him to transfer at season's end.
"I've always taught him never to quit," she said. "I tell him, 'I know you want to play basketball, but you don't want to be going from school to school, because you made that commitment, and that was the school you chose, and this is something you wanted to do.' Hopefully, he can fight through it and we don't have to go that route."