COLLEGE PARK -Cliff Tucker's season seemed to be spiraling downward.
Maryland's promising sophomore swingman had not played in the team's previous game, a win over Miami, and had played one minute against Boston College the game before. Then he compounded the problem by expressing his confusion and discontent to the media, an action that did not please coach Gary Williams.
But then came the North Carolina game Feb. 3, in which Tucker scored 18 points in 20 minutes and reminded everybody why there was excitement surrounding the forward from El Paso, Texas, when he committed to Maryland in 2007.
After the North Carolina game, Todd Stevenson, Tucker's former Amateur Athletic Union coach, received a text message from the player.
"It said, 'I just wanted to show the coach I could play,' " Stevenson said.
Just like that, Tucker was back in the playing rotation and seemingly back in Williams' good graces.
Tucker's development could be significant for Maryland, which has struggled to find scorers. The Terrapins (15-8, 4-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), who host Virginia Tech (16-7, 6-3) tomorrow, were 10th in the ACC in scoring offense and 11th in field-goal percentage through Sunday's games.
"I think if he's given the opportunity, people will be truly amazed to see the things he can do," Stevenson said. He said Tucker can play either guard position or small forward.
Tucker's relatives and supporters said it was uncharacteristic of him to vent to the media. They said that Tucker, as some young players do, got caught in an unguarded moment.
Tucker was quoted in The Washington Times on Feb. 2 as saying that "not playing is just killing me right now" and that he had been led to believe he would play in the Miami game - an assertion disputed by Williams.
"He's just so competitive that he wants to be out on the floor, and he probably just got impatient," Tucker's mother, Regina, told The Baltimore Sun yesterday. "It was kind of a shock to see all that because he's a very unselfish kid. He's happy where he's at, and he's not into complaining."
Tucker acknowledged after Sunday night's win over Georgia Tech, in which he scored eight points in 17 minutes, that he had begun to doubt himself on the bench.
"Well, it was kind of hard," Tucker said. "I lost faith a little. But I kept playing hard and just hoping he [Williams] would give me another chance."
Williams said he didn't mind Tucker being unhappy but wished the media hadn't become a player in the debate over playing time.
"He got a little bit behind this year after the start of the season, but after what he did [against North Carolina] he has certainly pushed himself back into the rotation," the coach said. "I'm glad to see that."
Williams went further on The Gary Williams Show, his television program. "You don't want your players happy about not playing. You want them to be upset, but they have to prove it when they get the opportunity, and Cliff certainly did that," the coach said. "You just have to go through the right channels. We don't like going through the media."
Tucker, who is averaging 4.7 points, is normally reserved. Stevenson calls him "the silent assassin."
Tucker was raised in a military family - his mother and father recently retired from the Army - and lived in Hawaii, Germany, Washington state and Texas growing up.
His best friend as a youth was a cousin, Philip, who was killed while riding on the back of a motorcycle in 2001. Tucker's right arm bears a tattoo with "Philip" on it next to clasped hands and "1988-2001."
Sports were a way for Tucker to fit in, his mother said. He starred at wide receiver in high school in El Paso, scoring 19 touchdowns as a senior.
Tucker's mother is from the Washington area, and Tucker got to know Maryland by attending Williams' basketball camp.
Regina Tucker said Cliff knew Williams was a demanding coach and that he was fine with that. She said Tucker was accustomed to accepting constructive criticism.
"I'm the hardest on Cliff," said Regina Tucker, who played basketball for Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
VIRGINIA TECH (16-7, 6-3) @MARYLAND (15-8, 4-5)
Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
TV: Chs. 54, 5
Radio: 1300 AM, 105.7 FM