Five years ago, when Washington center Todd MacCulloch was a senior at Shaftesbury High in Winnipeg, he played basketball like someone who aspired to be the first seven-foot-tall speech therapist in Manitoba. But his height wasn't his only notable physical attribute. "He always had great hands," Huskies coach Bob Bender says. Those hands persuaded Bender to offer MacCulloch a scholarship even though he could barely jump high enough to dunk.
It was one of Bender's shrewdest moves, hands down. MacCulloch, now a fifth-year senior, through Sunday had averaged a double double (18.8 points, 11.7 rebounds), made 67.0% of his shots from the field and was poised to become only the second player ever to lead Division I in field goal percentage for three straight seasons. ( Jerry Lucas of Ohio State was the first.) His most devastating weapon is his midrange jumper. "He can make the six-to eight-foot shot when he's not close enough to dunk," says Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose team was very nearly upset by Washington in last year's NCAAs when MacCulloch had 18 points and 10 rebounds in a 75-74 last-second loss in the Sweet 16. "We had no defense for him. He's got great touch."
During his first three years at Washington, soft touch described MacCulloch's hands, not to mention the rest of his 280-pound body. It took time for Bender to understand that MacCulloch's placidity didn't mean he didn't care. "He has a different sort of toughness," Bender says. "He's the focus of so much defensive attention, and they play him physical to get him off die block. He doesn't let it bother him. The way he's rebounding, he's shown he can respond."
At week's end MacCulloch was averaging two more rebounds a game than he did last season, in part because of a rather fundamental realization he came to last summer while playing for the Canadian national team at the world championships in Athens. "You're really allowed to pursue the ball all over the place," he says. "That's something I've started to believe in." Sound naive? Absolutely, but remember that MacCulloch came to Washington with a basketball IQ barely above his scoring average. He played hockey as a kid, until he became too ungainly for the sport and switched to basketball at age 11. Bender says that when MacCulloch entered UCLA's Pauley Pavilion for the first time, he never gave the Bruins' championship banners a second look. He didn't understand their significance. The Huskies' tournament run last year opened his eyes to the importance of the NCAAs. "It made me want to get back pretty badly," MacCulloch says. After a slow, injury-plagued start, Washington (16-9, 9-6) had won nine of its last 12 games through Sunday, putting it on the tournament bubble.
If there's no Madness to his March, MacCulloch will keep the disappointment in perspective. A lover of the outdoors who enjoys rowing on Lake Washington, MacCulloch has taken trips to see Mount Rainier, Olympic National Park and the San Juan Islands since he has been at Washington. He's also as willing to discuss his pursuit of a degree in speech and hearing science as his pursuit of a rebound. "People who knew me before basketball like the fact that I'm not defined by the game," MacCulloch says. "People think I should put all my time and energy into being a better player. I want to become a better player, but I want to get a degree."
It's clear that MacCulloch's future is in good hands.