February 21, 2006
CLEMSON -- If Clemson ends up falling one or two wins shy of the NCAA Tournament, its fans probably will spend a long time looking back at one or two highly questionable decisions by coach Oliver Purnell.
After snapping a five-game losing streak with a convincing win over Maryland, this team went to Wake Forest on a high note. With four games left in the regular season -- all of them winnable -- Clemson felt confident about its chances of finishing 8-8 in the ACC and making a good case to the NCAA Selection Committee.
But with leading scorer Vernon Hamilton on the shelf with a chipped bone in his left elbow, the chances of Clemson running the table with a hobbled point guard are not exactly a cinch. And if the Tigers finish 6-10 or 7-9 and find themselves in the NIT for the second straight year, excruciating home losses to N.C. State and Virginia Tech undoubtedly will stand out as what separated Clemson from its first trip to the NCAA event in eight years.
Clemson lost to the Wolfpack in double overtime and the Hokies in one extra period. In both cases, Purnell's reluctance to foul with three-point leads in the final 10 seconds of regulation ended up backfiring in a huge way.
Against N.C. State, Cliff Hammonds missed one of two free throws with nine seconds left. The Wolfpack forced overtime with a wide-open three-pointer by Cameron Bennerman with 2.4 seconds on the clock.
Ten days later against Virginia Tech, Clemson fans watched a painful re-run. Hammonds missed one of two free throws with 12.1 seconds left to keep the lead at three points. Once again, Purnell didn't foul. And once again, his philosophy was roundly second-guessed in the aftermath, following a three by Zabian Dowdell with 4.7 seconds left.
Purnell defended his logic amid the questions, saying that there's a large segment of coaches who abide by the same rule. He's right: More coaches are more willing to give up a game-tying three-pointer rather than risk losing on a made free throw, a rebound of a missed free throw and a three-pointer.
But regardless of how many coaches subscribe to the theory, there's plenty of grounds for it to be questioned.
First of all, let's review the odds of Purnell's stated disaster scenario occurring. The opponent has to make the first free throw. It then has to miss the second with the ball touching the rim, all the while managing to corral the rebound. Finally, someone has to hit a three-pointer, assumedly while being defended.
So take the odds of that scenario unfolding, then match them with the odds of what happened to the Tigers against N.C. State and Virginia Tech: A team gets a good look at a three-pointer, buries it to grab the momentum, and then wins in overtime.
"My philosophy is and has always been, you can't lose by playing it that way," Purnell said. "The other way, you can lose. You put them on the line, he makes the first. They miss the second one on purpose. They tap it back, they shoot a three and you lose right there."
The problem is, the Tigers lost twice by supposedly playing it safe. Purnell's decision not to foul against N.C. State can be excused, but the same thing happening just three games later made Purnell look like a bonehead.
He made another questionable decision late against Virginia Tech. After Shawan Robinson hit two free throws with 21.5 seconds left to put Clemson up by four, Purnell took Robinson out for defensive purposes.
Robinson is a liability on defense, but the move made little sense because it put a 93-percent foul shooter on the bench. Tech cut it to two with 13 seconds left and fouled Hammonds, a 46-percent foul shooter. He missed one of two to the surprise of no one.
Purnell has done a remarkable job this season in the face of adversity. He didn't plan for the ineffectiveness of guard Troy Mathis, who's been hobbled by soreness from knee surgery. And he definitely didn't count on the loss of top rebounder James Mays, who flunked out of school. The latest obstacle is the loss of Hamilton, who watched the Maryland win from the bench with his arm in a sling.
The Tigers kept their resolve despite the five-game losing streak, despite seven losses in eight games, and despite several agonizingly close defeats. There's almost no question that this is the least talented team in the ACC, and Purnell should be given credit for holding everything together and coming up with a plan that keeps his team in games.
But that doesn't make him immune to scrutiny for making questionable decisions. And his decisions against N.C. State and Virginia Tech -- two losses that probably will keep his team from dancing in March -- certainly fell in that category.
FREE THROW REVERSAL STUNNING
Good luck figuring this out: Clemson's free throw shooting has gone from awful to amazing.
Somehow, the Tigers have managed to reverse their awful woes from the line. They shot 72-of-93 during a five-game stretch before their Feb. 22 trip to Wake Forest, and that 77.4-percent figure is completely astounding, considering how brutal this team was from the line previously.
In its first seven conference games, Clemson shot 55.9 percent. The Tigers made just 10 of 32 shots from the line in losses to Duke and Miami, and Purnell seemed resigned to the thinking that his team's shooting would not improve much.
Well, it got better in a hurry. The Tigers shot 72 percent or better during the five-game period that closed with the home win over Maryland. And against the Terrapins, they came through from the line with the game on the line.
Clemson was 14-of-18 in the final eight minutes and went 25-for-33 for the game. Purnell said the dramatic change in games was not precipitated by any changes to the Tigers' routine in practice.
"Our big rallying cry has been stay the course," he said. "We've worked on routines, we've worked on form, we've worked on putting them in pressure situations. We're just staying the course. I think that was the main thing, not to go switching all around and trying this and trying that. Just stay the course.
"Sometimes it just takes some time. So we've just really stayed the course."
Senior center Akin Akingbala is most responsible for the transformation. He shot 30-of-40 from the line during the five games, including 15-of-18 in back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Even Hammonds, who was shattered after the crucial misses against N.C. State and Virginia Tech, has shown improvement. He was 5-of-6 against Boston College and Maryland.
Clemson still is shooting just 60.4 percent from the charity stripe, which ranks 318th nationally. But that's a lot preferable to the doldrums of a few weeks ago.