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The last thing P.J. Tucker sees before he walks out of his apartment is a picture of himself crying on the Longhorns bench. The photo was snapped in the waning moments of Texas's home finale against Oklahoma last Feb. 28; Tucker was in street clothes, having been declared academically ineligible some six weeks earlier. "I found it on the Internet, printed it out and taped it to the inside of my front door," Tucker says. "Any day I don't feel like working hard [in the classroom or the gym], that's my motivation."
Through the first 17 games last season, Tucker, a rugged 6'5" post player who has developed into a threat from the perimeter, led Texas in scoring (13.7 points), rebounding (8.0) and minutes (29.4) while helping the team to a 14--3 record and a No. 10 ranking. His departure on Jan. 17, as well as the loss of 6'10" freshman forward LaMarcus Aldridge (season-ending hip injury) two days earlier, derailed the Horns, who went 6--8 the rest of the way. With Tucker and Aldridge back, Texas has the talent to win the school's first national championship.
Tucker's road back has been far from smooth. A few days after he was declared ineligible, an academic adviser informed coach Rick Barnes that Tucker had been late to a class. Barnes chewed out Tucker in front of the team, then sent him to the weight room for a grueling session on a StairMaster. Later that day, coach and player had an emotional meeting in the locker room. "The whole [eligibility episode] forced him to look at a lot of areas of his life," Barnes says. Asked what he learned about his coach from the experience, Tucker replied, "He cared." For the first time, Tucker got serious about academics. He passed 15 hours in the spring and a total of 15 more in two summer sessions to regain his eligibility.
Now Tucker's motivation is Texas's inspiration. He challenged Aldridge and sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson to spend as much time as possible in the practice gym over the summer. Add to the mix 6'8" senior forward Brad Buckman, a four-year starter who averaged 16.0 points and 10.5 rebounds over the final 11 games last season, and the Texas lineup is as formidable as any in the country.
If everyone stays healthy and eligible, Tucker could end the season crying again--only this time they could be tears of joy after the national title game. -- Seth Davis