January 24, 2007
CLEMSON Each of coach Oliver Purnell's first three Clemson teams had succumbed to it.
In each season, Clemson offset promising wins with long losing streaks. In 2003-04, it was a five-game streak to close the season. The next year, another five-game skid put the Tigers into a 1-7 hole to start ACC play. Last year, a drought of you guessed it five games ultimately kept them from reaching the NCAA Tournament.
You could see the same thing coming after recent losses to Maryland and North Carolina. The magic that marked Clemson's 17-0 run to start the season had all but disappeared amid a haze of ill-advised shots and poor defense.
Bad vibes were descending after a 77-55 home drubbing at the hands of the Tar Heels, who made a resounding statement that the Tigers didn't belong on the same floor. With upcoming games against Boston College and Duke, there was plenty of reason to think that Purnell's team was on the verge of slipping into a funk reminiscent of previous years.
That's when the fourth-year coach took matters into his own hands. The day after the UNC debacle, Purnell tore into his team with a message that could have peeled the orange and purple paint from the interior of Littlejohn Coliseum.
After that meeting, he met with his players individually, before a practice that might have been the most difficult he has ever conducted at Clemson.
"There definitely was a lot of yelling and a lot of screaming," senior point guard Vernon Hamilton said. "Coach challenged us. It was a tough two days. In the team meeting, he went down the line and got on everybody."
Purnell wanted his players to know that this year's team isn't going to be like its predecessors. This year's team, he told them, is good enough to rise above the midseason funks that were so costly before.
"We all know what our goals are, and we hadn't been focused on them," junior shooting guard Cliff Hammonds said. "He got us refocused real quick."
In perhaps their most important game to date, the Tigers showed they received the message by swatting away Boston College in a 74-54 victory. A third straight loss would have been potentially crippling with the trip to Duke looming, but Clemson showed its resolve by outclassing the depleted Eagles.
Most importantly, the Tigers showed that they're not going to disappear over the remainder of the season.
"If we're a good team, then we should win this game," Purnell said. "I think we are a good team."
Some elements of this team are certainly not good. Free throw woes have been torturous in the past, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
Clemson missed yes, missed 36 of 56 free throws over a four-game stretch for an awful 35.7 percent success rate. The Tigers shot better from three-point range (31-73, 42.4 percent) over the same period, and their 57.8 percentage on free throws overall is challenging for the worst clip in ACC history.
The defense seems to have regressed, too. The Tigers are frequently bad in the full-court press, giving up way too many uncontested baskets. And the starting guard duo of Hamilton and Hammonds, known for its lockdown defense, has been beaten off the dribble way too much.
Those problems, not to mention some struggles in the half-court offense, will make it tough for this team to contend for an ACC title. But the Tigers should be able to overcome those issues enough to at least break even in ACC play and make a serious run at their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
One of the most impressive qualities of Purnell's fourth team is its ability to protect the basketball. In its 4-2 start in ACC play, Clemson had just eight turnovers in three of those games.
This is not something that should be overlooked. In previous years, the Tigers were a turnover machine 19.1 per game in Purnell's first season, and 17.6 in his second.
Through 20 games this season, Clemson averaged just 13.8 per game. Compare that to 19 turnovers per game by the opposition, and it's easy to see how the Tigers had taken almost 200 more shots than their opponents.
"When you do take care of the basketball at that level, you're going to have a great chance to win," Purnell said. "That's just a huge advantage for you."
The Tigers returned to their defensive roots against BC. It was alarming when four straight opponents shot 50 percent or better against Clemson, including 62.7 percent by Maryland and 59.2 by Georgia Tech.
But Clemson tightened the clamps against BC, which missed 13 of its 20 field goal attempts in the second half while committing 21 turnovers in the game.
"We had some feistiness in practice, which was good," said junior forward Sam Perry, who held BC star Jared Dudley to 13 points. "We needed to get after each other. We had gotten a little complacent with our record. We just needed a kick in the butt. We went away from our identity."
Clemson seemed to find it against BC. Thanks in large part to their coach laying down the law, the Tigers let it be known that they won't lay down, as they have in previous seasons.
"We have a formula," Purnell said. "You have to play smart and hard. We played hard against North Carolina, but we didn't play smart. This (BC) was a test game, and they passed the test."
SPILLER DRAMA WON'T GO AWAY
C.J. Spiller sat before the television cameras and microphones and pledged that he'll remain with Clemson long-term at least for now.
Spiller was responsible for a massive meltdown among Tiger supporters when he decided to transfer to Florida, only to change his mind and elect to remain at Clemson after a meeting with coach Tommy Bowden.
When he finally was made available to the media, Spiller said he's sticking with Clemson. But he was far from convincing. The insanely talented tailback left the door wide-open when pressed by reporters to make a firm statement about his future.
"I'm going to do two years, hopefully," Spiller said. "I'm just taking it one day at a time, really. I really just have to step back and take everything in, then just go day by day."
That's not exactly a statement that creates overwhelming confidence that Spiller will conclude his career at Clemson. His home in Lake Butler, Fla., is less than an hour's drive from Florida's campus in Gainesville, so rest assured that the speculation and doubt will be rekindled with every trip home.