When the ball's in Tucker's mitts, UT's OK
Texas is in good hands when the ball is in P.J. Tucker's hands, writes Andy Katz.
But we would be fooling ourselves (and you) if we didn't highlight the main reason Texas stands apart from nearly every other team in the country: P.J. Tucker's hands.
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We're not kidding here. His hands could be the difference for the Longhorns as they try to reach the Final Four for the second time in four seasons. Plus, Texas is eyeing an unprecedented chance to play for the national title in three major sports -- baseball, football and men's basketball -- in the course of a year.
His hands? Seriously.
"They're, like, super long," Texas sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge said. "I don't like giving him a high five after a good play because he ends up slapping me on my elbow."
Clearly, they're big. The more important factor is what Tucker does with them.
"Coach [Rick Barnes] always said, 'If you throw a pass to P.J., it's your fault if he doesn't catch it,' because he's got a pair of mitts on him," Buckman said.
Tucker can use the hands to snatch an entry pass, post up and spin on anyone -- and we mean anyone, regardless of height -- to get to the hoop. His hands help him handle the ball as well as any guard in the league and, it seems at times, in the country. Those hands also seem to snatch rebounds at will.
He is, at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, one of the most versatile players in the country. He can play any spot on the floor, and he has done so throughout a career that was interrupted last season after he failed to meet the NCAA's academic requirements (he was ineligible for the second semester).
And those mitts, as Barnes calls them, are at the end of a 7-foot-1 wingspan that provides quite a target for a pass.
"Yeah, my hands are pretty good," said Tucker, who isn't afraid to boast about his biggest selling point. "I can catch just about anything. They're good for rebounding, too."
And they're not too bad for shooting and dribbling and just about any other kind of basketball skill, either.
As a freshman, Tucker took the ball the length of the floor and laid up a shot to beat Providence. Whenever there is a broken play and he has the ball, he can put it on the floor and drive to the hole. His hands also provide him with a nice shooter's touch in the lane.
Tucker is no fool, though. He knows he doesn't have deep-range hands, the kind that allow a shooter to loft anything from beyond the 3-point line. He's attempted only one 3-pointer this season (he made it) after hoisting only one in the previous two seasons combined (he missed).
"He's so skilled with the ball that you can put him in any pick-and-roll situation," Barnes said. "There aren't many [teams] that have a guy like him."
We'll go ahead and say no one else has someone like him.
"He's got really good vision, [can] pass the floor, rebound and continues to learn how to play," Barnes said. "He's never been a perimeter player but he's not out there to prove he can shoot 3s. He plays to his strength."
Barnes used Tucker with three guards quite often while Buckman was hurt (Buckman missed part of the Duke game, all of Tennessee and Texas State, and most of Villanova).
"Few guys are as quick as he is, few guys are as skilled as he is," Barnes said.
"I just play," Tucker said. "I don't see height. It doesn't matter to me. Sometimes it's easier to score on taller guys because they're not as quick as me and I can get around them rather than shoot over them."
But a lot of that has to do with the way he can control the ball with his hands. The ball isn't going anywhere once it's in those mitts.
"His reach is so long that he gets his jump hook over people," said Aldridge, who has had to guard him often in practice the past two seasons. "He has a high release on his jump hook or he just goes around you."
Tucker doesn't have to score for the Longhorns to win. But his creativity with the ball in his hands can set the offense in motion. During Texas' nine-game winning streak, Tucker scored in double figures in six games -- but not in the win over Villanova or the blowout over Oklahoma State. Instead, Tucker had 10 boards against the Cowboys (got to have sturdy mitts to corral the loose ones) and nine against the Wildcats.
Getting the ball out of those hands cleanly is also a chore, and that's why he can get fouled easily, too. In a road win at Iowa State, Tucker was 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. He was 8-of-10 in the victory at Memphis.
That doesn't mean he can't (and doesn't) carry the team on occasion -- he had 24 points and 13 boards in that win over Memphis and 24 and 15 at home against Colorado -- and his overall numbers are about as solid as anyone could want (16.3 points, 8.9 boards, 2.8 assists, 3.1 turnovers, 54.1 percent shooting and 73.4 percent at the line).
The Longhorns lost two games early that got plenty of pub -- blowout L's against Duke in New Jersey and at home to Tennessee. Well, neither loss is looking like a fluke considering the way both of those teams are playing.
But the reality is, according to Barnes, the Longhorns weren't ready for those games at that point in December. The goal was to find a comfort level with Buckman, Aldridge and Tucker playing together up front since they didn't last season after January (Aldridge was hurt and Tucker was ineligible). Not having Buckman and Gibson (concussion limited him to a handful of minutes against the Vols) contributed to the losses.
But all is well now in Austin. The Longhorns have figured out what works -- and what seems to be the most important factor for this team is keeping Tucker's hands out of harm's way. If you read about a broken bone, a deep gash or even a hangnail, you should be concerned. The work these hands do for Texas could ultimately lead to a national title.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.