- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas -- They were calling Texas sophomore forward P.J. Tucker as soon as he was ruled academically ineligible on Jan. 20 so often that he had to turn off his phone numerous occasions.
They started calling Texas freshman center LaMarcus Aldridge a few days earlier, as soon as he was done for the season after suffering a hip injury on Jan. 15. The calling became so disruptive that Aldridge changed his cell phone number three times.
"They," according to Tucker and Aldridge, were runners, agents and family and friends. They all wanted them gone, off to the NBA as soon as possible.
Don't worry about quitting on school, his team and Texas coach Rick Barnes. Tucker, apparently, should have just gone back to his native North Carolina and gotten ready for the draft.
"They were saying things like, 'You might as well leave and get ready for the NBA,' but I couldn't do that to these guys," Tucker said. "I was here every day. To leave would be real selfish. I said I was going to make it right. I'm not a quitter.
"It was everybody -- agents, people from home -- people trying to persuade me to do it," Tucker said. "I just turned my phone off."
As for Aldridge, apparently he should just have had the hip surgery to repair the torn cartilage, rehab, drop out of school and focus on draft workouts.
The calls were so outlandish that even after the draft was over, Aldridge said they kept coming, telling him that he should sit out this season to get ready for the 2006 draft.
"When I got hurt, agents and runners were pounding my number," Aldridge said. "They were saying things like, 'This team will take you and I can get you in their summer league team if you get back by this time.' It was getting to where everybody was calling. It was bad -- even my friends and family [were] saying to me, 'You should just get out. Just leave and do your thing and make it to the League.' I love coach Barnes. He's like a dad to me and I wasn't going anywhere."
This sort of thing shouldn't surprise anyone. Runners are always looking for an angle and two marquee players -- one a possible lottery pick in Aldridge and another possible draft pick in Tucker -- were like fresh chum for the shark-infested waters of the underground draft process.
Fending off the vultures made these two players stronger for what could be a national title run at Texas.
Wednesday afternoon, there was Tucker and Aldridge, running the floor with sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson and senior forward Brad Buckman -- a foursome talented enough to win the title if it gets the necessary role play from a few others.
Tucker led the team in scoring (13.7 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg), double-doubles (five) and minutes played (29.4 per game) through the first 17 games before he didn't qualify academically.
When he was first ruled ineligible under a rule that demands a player has a 2.0 grade-point average and passes six credits in the fall semester, Tucker said he felt sorry for himself. He said he felt like everyone was looking at him on campus.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Tucker said. "I knew since December that it was going to happen, but it didn't sink in. I thought something was going to happen, that someone from somewhere was going to come and do something. I thought this couldn't happen to me."
But it did. Today, Tucker is a proponent of the 2.0/six credit hour rule. When it first occurred, Barnes told him he didn't have a lot of choices and said he could just go if he wanted to. But Barnes knew Tucker wasn't a quitter, and after the initial shock, Tucker got into a groove.
"He's a totally different person," Barnes said of Tucker. "His personality has always been outgoing and he's been a leader and always loves basketball. But he's much more mature away from basketball. Our academic advisor, Randa Ryan, totally reshaped him. He's serious about being educated."
Tucker was a small forward with a power game who wasn't as much of a face-up player. Since being out, he has changed his game to become a more balanced player, looking for the jumper, too. Barnes said Tucker never stopped trying to get better.
"I know at my size that I need to be able to shoot the ball," said the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Tucker. "I'm coming off pick-and-rolls shooting."
Aldridge had the face-up game but needed to get stronger before he could become a force in the paint at both ends. He started the first 16 games last season, averaging 9.9 points, 5.9 boards, while coming up with 24 blocks and shooting 66.3 percent from the floor. But the 6-10 Aldridge was only playing at 215-220 pounds. He's at 245 now.
"I was just starting to understand getting into the box and scoring when I got hurt," Aldridge said. "I got released in July and have been working ever since. I'm not a true center, the kind that has to go to the block every time. I can shoot the 3-pointer and do everything. I'm not one-dimensional."
He could end up being the country's top traditional center low-post scoring threat. We're not including Duke's Shelden Williams and Boston College's Craig Smith in this group. Aldridge is a different player, not as much of a space-eater in the paint as much as a versatile center who, in his own words, would love to emulate Kevin Garnett.
Aldridge knows he's not as talented as Garnett, but he runs the floor like a gazelle, is agile on his feet and is ready to be a major presence on the college scene -- something that Texas (losers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Nevada without Aldridge and Tucker) lacked a season ago.
"The more he plays, the better he'll be," Barnes said. "He went four or five months without playing and now he's getting into the rhythm of games. We were definitely a different team without those two guys, just like we will be a different team with those guys."
They'll be much better -- title-level better -- in large part because two of their stars listened to their hearts rather than the callers who were trying to influence them to prematurely toss their Texas time away.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Texas could contend for the national title this season because two of the Horns' best players stayed loyal and returned.