By Ken Tysiac, Columbia (S.C.) State
November 11, 2002 CLEMSON There were only about 100 fans watching Clemson's intrasquad basketball scrimmage, but forward Chris Hobbs still was impressed with the Civic Center of Anderson on Fan Appreciation Day. The Civic Center is 16 miles from campus and will serve as Clemson's home arena at least until Jan. 5, when a renovated Littlejohn Coliseum is scheduled to open for the Tigers' ACC opener against Duke. Hobbs noticed that in Clemson's temporary home, the smattering of polite applause from the small group of fans gathered for the scrimmage was quite loud.
I guess the echo in it is louder, or something, Hobbs said. I don't know. But it's going to be really loud.
The noise in that arena is part of an optimistic plan by coach Larry Shyatt and the Clemson players to make the most of a difficult situation. The Tigers will play all eight of their home games before the beginning of ACC play at the Civic Center of Anderson.
They will lose some of the familiarity advantage they might have shooting on baskets in their own arena, because the Civic Center isn't their own arena. They will endure the inconvenience of getting on a bus to travel to their own home games.
But Clemson's plan calls for the Tigers to make the most of some of the advantages the Civic Center might have over Littlejohn for nonconference games that often are sparsely attended anyway. The Civic Center will seat about 5,000 for basketball, so it will condense the crowd and create a loud atmosphere the Tigers have enjoyed only for big ACC games and when Rick Barnes was their coach.
We've been put in probably one of the most unique positions of any basketball team in the history of this league, Shyatt said. Needless to say, we're going to use every opportunity as a plus rather than a minus.
Clemson's players also spent much of the summer trying to make the best of their difficulty trying to find a gym for practice. The renovations at Littlejohn and at the Fike Fieldhouse intramural facility on campus left players scrambling to nearby Southern Wesleyan, the Central Recreation Center or the YMCA.
It would have been easy to stop trying to find an open court, but senior captains Edward Scott and Ray Henderson wouldn't let their teammates be discouraged. They even hatched an idea to have all team members sign a contract, solidifying their promises to spend an extra five hours each week trying to make themselves and their team better.
We didn't want (the facility difficulties) to set in people's minds and be an excuse for not having a good year this year, Scott said. We wanted to get something to get the team together. There are still places to play ball.
Scott said the offseason hardships and the team's determination to overcome them helped the Tigers become a closer group. That will be particularly important as Clemson tries to reinvent itself following the loss of its top two scorers, wing guards Jamar McKnight and Tony Stockman. McKnight was a senior last season. Stockman, whose 50 three-pointers in ACC play led the league, transferred to Ohio State.
Clemson's returning players shot a combined 24.3 percent from three-point range last season. Sophomores Chey Christie and Olu Babalola, the likely starters on the wings, were a combined 11-for-64. But they will provide a significant upgrade defensively over McKnight and Stockman.
We have got athletic wings who can really create stuff off defense, Scott said, and hopefully we can get steals and get easy baskets. That will be our transition.
That's Clemson's plan for success this year, after going 13-17 in 2001-02 and finishing last (or tied for last) in the ACC for a third consecutive season. Shyatt was bitterly disappointed with the Tigers' defense last season, when they ranked last in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage defense.
But Babalola has a chance to be the Tigers' best wing defender since Greg Buckner, and Clemson has a solid defensive post rotation with Henderson, Hobbs, senior Tomas Nagys and sophomore Sharrod Ford returning. Scott plans to pick up opposing point guards closer to midcourt, and the players say the chemistry they developed during the offseason will improve the team's defensive concept.
Last year we didn't play any defense at all compared to this year, Hobbs said. Our whole defensive scheme has turned around. We're more aggressive. We get up on everything. And that's what comes first this year. Our team is going to be a lot better than last year's simply because we're going to stop people now.
Clemson's coaches and players say that if they play well on defense, their rebounding and Scott's ability to handle and distribute the ball will help them win. Scott averaged a school-record 7.9 assists per game last season, and Clemson returns all of its best post players from a team that led the ACC in rebound margin.
Shyatt hopes to build on those qualities. He said his goal is to reach the NCAA Tournament, which Clemson hasn't done since 1998.
We have just enough of everything that we should vie for a top spot in this league, Shyatt said. There is something to be said about four-year seniors, and we have got three of them, plus two walk-ons who have been with us. That should be able to give us some experience at every position, and that's something we've lacked.
After three straight last-place finishes in the ACC, Shyatt will be under fire again at the end of the season if the Tigers fail to at least finish with a .500 record and reach the NIT. He signed a two-year contract extension in March, which gave him two more seasons with Clemson after 2002-03 is completed. But the buyout Clemson would pay if Shyatt is fired is just $180,000 after this season and $160,000 after 2003-04 a pittance compared to the $1 million buyout in football coach Tommy Bowden's contract.
Relying on an arena without permanent seating to build a winning crescendo for this critical season seems a dubious proposition, and the Tigers were picked eighth in the ACC media's annual preseason poll.
But Shyatt is hoping the noise in Anderson will help capture fans' fancy early in the season, and that seven months spent without a court on campus even for pickup games will make the Tigers' challenges on the court seem trivial.
All of these things have to make us better, Shyatt said. They have to. They have to toughen us.
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