Dream deferred

After overcoming injuries, Alando Tucker and Sharif Chambliss are enjoying their NCAA Tournament opportunities

MADISON — March Madness is here and Alando Tucker could not be happier. Ditto for Sharif Chambliss. The NCAA men's basketball tournament is an exciting time for any college athlete fortunate enough to take part, but the typically glowing smiles that adorn Tucker's and Chambliss' faces are a little brighter this week, as the University of Wisconsin prepares for a run in the tournament.

Tucker remembers this time last season, when he was relegated to dribbling a basketball or riding a stationary bike during the Badgers' practices. While his teammates were preparing for the ‘Big Dance', Tucker was rehabilitating the injured foot that had forced him to take a medical redshirt after playing in just four games.

"I was joking with the guys," Tucker said. "I know practice is tough but being out here at this time of the year and actually able to run up and down and get repetitions with the guys up and down the floor it just feels good because I can think back to last year when I had to sit here and watch these guys practice and I couldn't take part in it. It was horrible."

This time around Tucker is not feeling that pain and longing. The 6-foot-5 sophomore forward has been integral to UW's success this season and he will be counted on when the sixth-seeded Badgers (22-8 overall) tip off with No. 11 seed Northern Iowa (21-10) in a first-round matchup in Oklahoma City, Okla., Friday at 6:20 p.m.

Tucker has not been completely healthy this season — a foot injury forced him to miss three games earlier this year, and he acknowledged recently that he still is not quite 100 percent — but he has persevered and he heads into tournament play as the Badgers' leading scorer (14.9 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.4 per game).

"I'm getting a lot stronger. I'm mentally tougher and I'm physically stronger," Tucker said. "As I get stronger and stronger, the explosiveness is going to tend to come out, because that's the type of player I am. I'm an explosive player, a strong slasher. Those things will come as physically I get stronger."

Tucker burst onto the scene as a high-flying true freshman two years ago. Now a relatively seasoned veteran, he knows that he can call on his 38-inch vertical jump when necessary, but it is more important to harness that energy. The injuries have helped him learn that patient lesson.

"Through the course of the season when I was battling through a couple injuries, it was just a mental thing," he said. "Now, I'm getting back where I'm actually getting explosive. So now it is just more of controlling it… I can't just go out of control and attack the lanes just with no purpose."

Chambliss also remembers watching the postseason unfold, but his memories stretch further back. The fifth-year senior guard transferred to Wisconsin from Penn State to have an opportunity like the one before him this week; to have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament again. His freshman year in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions went 21-12 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, but they were 7-21 in each of his last two seasons there.

"It feels great," Chambliss said of returning the NCAAs. "We just got to take advantage of the opportunity that's put in front of us… This is what we've worked hard for. So we are going to go out there, we are just going to play."

While sitting out a transfer year last season, Chambliss too felt the pain of an injury, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during practice exactly a year ago today. And though the injury has limited him at times this season, Chambliss has not missed a single practice, let alone a game.

"I wouldn't say I've been 100 percent at all during the season," he said. "Sometimes mentally you get over it, the injury.

"I'm back playing. This is what I came here for. We are going to let it all hang out and play basketball."

"That's what keeps people like myself in this profession," coach Bo Ryan said of Chambliss and Tucker. "When you see people progressing, you see people working, you see people having fun doing something, playing the game, being a student."

Chambliss was nearly a 15-point a game scorer his last two seasons at Penn State, but he is averaging just 7.3 per game this year, while shooting a mere 35 percent from the field. But he has started the past 26 games and he leads the Badgers with 2.9 assists per game and a 2.46 assist-to-turnover ratio.

For Chambliss, though, all of those statistics — good, bad or indifferent — are mere footnotes.

"I'm happy we're winning," he said. "We are going to go out there, we are going to get it done Friday."

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