March 21, 2007
CLEMSON It's remarkable how perceptions can become distorted by time.
In three losses by Clemson's basketball team this season, the opponent benefited from questionable calls by officials. One of those cases, a two-point loss at Duke that saw the Blue Devils take advantage of an uncorrected time-keeping error, was egregious. The other two, which occurred late in losses to Virginia and Florida State, were sketchy.
It's one thing to say that Clemson was unfortunate late in those three defeats, which together ended up keeping the Tigers from their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
But it's quite a leap to pin the three losses entirely on the officials, or to suggest that Clemson would have won them all had the men in stripes not screwed up. Plenty of Tigers fans and at least one Palmetto State newspaper columnist were making that case as Clemson settled for its third straight trip to the NIT, and that revisionist view could not be more short-sighted.
When assessing blame for the Tigers' precipitous collapse 10 losses in 14 games after a 17-0 start the officials aren't even close to the top of the list. Suggesting that Clemson would be in the NCAA Tournament if not for officiating gaffes represents a startling case of selective amnesia.
Let's start with the Duke game, an exhilarating affair that was turned into a debacle by an inexplicable oversight by the officiating crew. After a game-tying three-pointer by Vernon Hamilton, the officials failed to comprehensively review a clock malfunction. They ended up putting 4.4 seconds on the clock, a mistake that allowed the Devils time to score the game-winning basket as time expired.
It was an unfortunate error, and the ACC office acknowledged that. But pinning that defeat solely on the officials is ignorant, because it overlooks some key points.
First, Clemson was outplayed after tying the game at 60 with 3:33 remaining. The Tigers missed five straight shots until a Hamilton layup with five seconds left. Second, Duke's Josh McRoberts gave Clemson a gift by tossing the subsequent inbounds pass to Hamilton, setting up the game-tying three-pointer. Up three points and in the double bonus, all the Devils needed was one free throw to ice it.
Finally and most importantly what's to say that Duke couldn't have gotten off a game-winning shot had the time-keeping error not occurred? In a similar situation the next week at Virginia, coach Mike Krzyzewski drew up a play that, with one second on the clock and the Blue Devils inbounding from their own baseline, gave Greg Paulus an open three-pointer that rimmed out.
Three days after the loss at Duke, Clemson's coaching staff was incensed at a no-call late in a loss to Virginia. The Cavaliers scored the game-winning basket after Sean Singletary leaped high into the air to snare a rebound and landed on the floor to keep the possession alive.
Clemson's camp thought Singletary traveled, and he might have. But the game wouldn't have been over had the infraction been called; the Tigers were up just one with about 18 seconds left. Does anyone really believe that this Clemson team one of the worst free throw shooting outfits in ACC history could have hit the late freebies to finish Virginia off?
Besides, it's hard to make a compelling case that you should have won a game in which you surrendered a 15-0 run in the last four minutes. That's what Clemson did that day against Virginia.
That's also what the Tigers did against Florida State in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Does Clemson win if the officials don't make a dubious call on K.C. Rivers with 1.5 seconds left, allowing FSU forward Al Thornton to break a tie by hitting one of two free throws?
Perhaps. But if the Tigers don't gag in the last four minutes, it doesn't get to that point. And if Cliff Hammonds doesn't turn the ball over with eight seconds left, Thornton doesn't even have the ball in his hands.
That's the fallacy of blaming the Tigers' bad late-season swoon on bad calls. In each instance, Clemson choked just as much as the officials, and probably harder.
HARPER, KORN TOP QUARTERBACKS
Willy Korn passed his first audition in the first week of spring practice.
Clemson's coaches wanted to see what the heralded quarterback could do when placed in high-pressure situations, and Korn delivered enough that coach Tommy Bowden thinks he's capable of competing for the starting job.
"I think Korn showed us that he belongs at this level at this point in time in his career, that he can go out and manage the show," Bowden said, after the Tigers wrapped up their fourth practice and headed into a week off for spring break.
Korn, who graduated early from Byrnes High and enrolled at Clemson in January, still has a long way to go if he wants to start in the Tigers' Labor Day opener against Florida State at Death Valley.
A look at some other early debuts by highly touted freshmen last season Matt Stafford at Georgia, Mitch Mustain at Arkansas, Tim Tebow at Florida demonstrated that, regardless of how talented a kid might be, the transition from high school to college can be extremely difficult.
Bowden stopped short of naming Korn the clear backup to starter Cullen Harper, a redshirt junior. But there is some evidence that Korn has established some separation between himself and fellow backups Tribble Reese (redshirt junior) and Michael Wade (redshirt freshman).
Korn still has to improve at grasping the playbook and making the right reads, and that's to be expected for a guy who otherwise would be getting ready for his senior prom. But the new guy made an immediate impression by throwing crisp, accurate passes complete with tight spirals an occurrence that was rare last year with starting quarterback Will Proctor, under whom wounded ducks were a frequent and painful sight in Death Valley.
Korn also seems to have the right attitude. Far from cocky, he was able to put Bowden's vote of confidence in a proper context.
"It's encouraging," Korn said, "but I'm still far, far away from where I need to be."
The smart money is on Harper to end up with the starting position against the Seminoles. He has the strongest arm of the bunch and a good grasp of offensive coordinator Rob Spence's system. Plenty of insiders wondered last year why Harper wasn't at least given a shot when Proctor was struggling, and Harper wasn't happy about being ignored.
Harper worked hard in the offseason to establish himself as the man under center, and it's hard to imagine Korn getting the first snap against the Seminoles. But the hot-shot freshman showed in mid-March that Harper at least could be looking over his shoulder in August.