Craig Valentine stepped to the free-throw line in the quiet gymnasium on the warm summer day a few months ago. He looked up at the basket, bounced the ball a few times and let it fly.
He then repeated this routine about 399 more times. Valentine also added 400 more shots from different places. And he labored through this routine every day of the summer.
Valentine had been a star for Wilde Lake in high school. He led Howard County in scoring his junior and senior years and was considered one of the best players in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
College, however, has been a different story. After receiving a scholarship to Towson State, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Valentine spent lots of time on the bench during his first two years. In fact, he averaged butthree minutes per game last year as a sophomore.
That's why he spent the summer shooting 800 times a day.
Valentine says he wants to contribute more to the Towson State program, which has won two straight East Coast Conference titles and made two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. The junior guard's goal -- to improve.
"I wanted to make (free throws) more of a strength, kind of automatic," says Valentine, a mass communications major. "I want to shoot (from the field) higher percentage, the highest percentage possible."
His playing time has increased this year. He has played in four of Towson State's first five games, averaging 11.8 minutes per game. Towson State coach Terry Truax says the junior could play 15-20 minutes per game by the end of the year.
Valentine came to Towson State as a shooting guard, but Truax moved him to the point before last year to help find him more playing time. Valentine says it has been difficult, at times, adjusting to the new role. Now, he needs to bring the ball up and help run the offense rather than look for the shot.
Truax, however, is pleased with how Valentine has played at the point. Despite the lack of minutes last year, Valentine made a number of key plays. This year, Valentine is coming into his own even more.
"Every time that Craig has been in a game he has made something happen," says Truax. "We really need that right now."
Truax is alluding to the loss of star point guard Devin Boyd, out for several weeks with a broken elbow suffered in the season opener at Colorado -- a game Truax held Valentine out of because of a sore ankle that still bothers him at times. The coach says that he's counting on Valentine to help provide leadership for the struggling Tigers, 2-4 on the season before last night's game with University of Maryland.
Valentine says he's feelingmore comfortable all the time. He sees a big difference between Wilde Lake High School and playing the game before nearly 20,000 at the University of North Carolina.
When the Tigers played at North Carolina a few weeks ago, Valentine entered the game and immediately made a steal and hit a layup to help the Tigers stay close.
Defense andmaking steals are two of the things Valentine says he takes the mostpride in. He made a similar play in the East Coast Conference final last year against Rider. In that game, he made two free throws that cut the deficit to one in the eventual 69-63 Towson State victory.
Valentine says his goal this year is to toughen his defense and do whatever he can to help Towson State win games.
"I'm a more completeplayer," said Valentine. "I didn't play defense as well as I should have (in high school)."
One reason is that he was the key to WildeLake. Valentine, who also played football for the Wildecats, says hefelt lots of pressure there, because much of the burden often fell squarely on his shoulders. He averaged 23 and 23.8 points per game in his junior and senior years, respectively.
Coming to Towson State was a tough transition. Valentine was stuck behind star guard Kurk Lee (who played with the New Jersey Nets in the NBA) his freshman year and didn't play much.
That rough beginning may have helped, however.
"When I got here, I was a little bit humbled," says Valentine. "I could've been coming in a little overconfident."
Truax said that Valentine is more focused on basketball now and is getting better with every game.
"He has improved tremendously," Truax says. "He plays intelligently."
Valentine continues to work to better his gameand contribute. Last year, he made only 11 of 24 (46 percent) from the free-throw line. This year, he has hit 4-of-4 and is averaging 4.5points per game, up from his 1.7 average last year.
And all his work last summer looks like it was not just a shot in the dark.