Charity stripe suits Tucker

Sophomore forward's confidence has led to free throw shooting prowess

MADISON — Early this season Alando Tucker was about the least likely University of Wisconsin men's basketball player to put on a clinic at the free throw line.

Oh, the 6-foot-5 sophomore forward has never had a tough time getting to the free throw line. He is a low post wunderkind, a master at drawing contact as he attacks the rim. He is averaging 5.8 free throw attempts per game this season, 4.9 for his career, and is on pace to break the school's free throw attempts record before his college career concludes two years from now.

In some ways, Tucker is a product of the Badgers' system. Wisconsin's protocol regarding free throw shooting is a sort of critical mass theory: make more than your opponents shoot. And in order to accomplish that feat—as UW did as a team last season and has approached this season—you have to shoot a lot of free throws.

Tucker has made frequent trips to the charity stripe this season, but through his first 19 games he was making those shots at just a 61 percent clip. That included a brutal 5-game non-conference stretch when he made 18 of 36 from the line.

In the past month, however, Tucker's free throw shooting has been exceptional. He made 15 straight free throws across four games in February, opening a run in which he has made 47 of 59, or 80 percent of his attempts. In the past 10 games, he has raised his season free throw percentage from 61 to 68.

"I struggled early with my free throw shooting," Tucker said Sunday, following the Badgers' 71-62 win over Bucknell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City.

"That was because I was thinking a lot when I was at the line," he said. "The coaches stayed on me and told me just get up there and shoot it. Don't worry about your form or anything. You have to shoot it and have confidence."

As Tucker's early-season struggles mounted he tried a few variations to his form, he said Tuesday, but all the tweaks did was toy with his confidence.

"You can't do much with mechanics during the year," assistant coach Gary Close said. "It just doesn't work very often and then you start thinking too much. With him it was just gaining confidence. When you start making a few you start feeling a little better about yourself."

Tucker sure looked confident Sunday, when he made 15 of 18 from the line, including 10 of 12 in a critical stretch late in the game. He scored all but two of his 17 points from the foul line.

"That's the game plan," senior forward Zach Morley said of Tucker's performance. "Make them foul, take it at them, get to the line and make them."

As the sixth seeded Badgers prepare for Friday's Syracuse Regional semifinal matchup with No. 10 seed North Carolina State, Tucker has emerged as their most trustworthy free throw shooter. He made 2 of 2 charity attempts in UW's round one win over Northern Iowa, and is shooting 85 percent (17 of 20) in the tournament.

"When I come up to the line I know each time I shoot it I'm going to make it," Tucker said.

Tucker's free throws are not a work of art. Their low angle of trajectory is more an assault on the twine than a graceful act of skill.

Style points, however, are not awarded for shooting.

"There are a lot of examples of guys that don't have the pure shot that become really good shooters," Close said. "The object is to get the ball in the basket any way you can. That's what he is doing right now."

It is a philosophy that also applies to Tucker the complete shooter.

Dating back to his days as a highly recruited high school standout at Lockport Township, Tucker's calling card has never been his shot. His athletic bursts to the rim and his craftiness in the post is what has made him an All-Big Ten caliber player.

What Tucker's shot lacks in poetic beauty, it makes up for in wherewithal. Tucker is scorer, first-and-foremost, a fiercely competitive, improvisational maestro, who just wants to see points on the board for his side. And pretty or not, Tucker is shooting 48 percent from the field, second-best on the Badgers, and a respectable 34 percent from beyond 3-point range.

"It is just a whole mental game you are playing with yourself," Tucker said. "I know I can knock it down. So, now that's what I do."

There is still room for Tucker to improve his shooting, but work on technique can wait until the summer, when he has time for fine tuning.

"I think by the time he leaves here he'll be a really, really good shooter," Close said.

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