January 6, 2003 CLEMSON Clemson basketball coach Larry Shyatt hates the word zone. That's a soft word, Shyatt said.
Early in last year's ACC schedule, the Tigers had some success with a two-three zone, so they stayed with it. In the end, they stayed with it too long.
This year, Clemson is putting more pressure on the ball and playing what most observers would consider a matchup zone. The early results were positive. Just one of Clemson's first nine opponents shot 50 percent from the field. Cincinnati, which crushed then-No. 5 Oregon, shot 34 percent against the Tigers.
Shyatt talks a lot about leadership. He said recently that seniors Edward Scott, Ray Henderson and Tomas Nagys are driving the Tigers. Their message is a simple one: If we have a weakness, let's work on it. So far, everyone is responding well.
Entering this season, defense was a weakness. Last year, the Tigers allowed the opposition to shoot 43 percent from the field and almost 37 percent from three-point range. Through the first nine games this season, the opposition was shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc.
We care about defense more this season, Scott said. Defense has been our main focus. We know that if we stop people, we will have a chance to win.
Another long-time Clemson weakness has been free throw shooting. After six games this year, the Tigers' accuracy from the line was hovering around 60 percent. So, the seniors called for some extra practice. The result? The Tigers made 19 of 26 from the line against Cincinnati, 20 of 27 against Liberty, 17 of 25 against Coastal Carolina.
We have no superstars, Scott said. Who is our go-to guy? The answer is nobody. The only thing you can say about our team is that I handle the ball most of the time.
Scott got off to a solid start. He is definitely Clemson's marquee player. If you can shake up Scott, you can disrupt the Tigers. But he seems to have a good feel for when he should shoot and when he should pass. When the game gets up-tempo, he can get out of control, but most of the time, he does a good job of playing his game.
The Tigers' monster in development, meanwhile, is Sharrod Ford. He is the quickest of Clemson's big men and the most skilled on the offensive end. Shyatt finally is letting Ford play (28 minutes per game), and Ford is producing. He averaged 10 points and almost eight rebounds per game in the Tigers' first nine games.
Almost everyone agrees that Clemson's most improved player is Olu Babalola, who has size, strength and an improved jump shot.
We can cause a lot of matchup problems, Scott said. We can score, especially in a full-court game, and we can rely on our defense in a half-court game.
The biggest positive in November and December was that the Tigers didn't blow any of the gimmees. There were no embarrassing losses to second-rate teams.
I applaud the effort of our team to make sure we have our focus, Shyatt said after Clemson's Dec. 28 victory over Liberty.
The one thing the Tigers didn't earn early was respect. They flew under everyone's radar because of their lousy schedule. In mid-December, Clemson's schedule to date was rated No. 326 by one national media outlet. Shyatt has talked a lot about the schedule being designed for a purpose. He wanted his team to build confidence in the early games.
Is this team for real? Conventional wisdom says no. The Tigers have been down this route before, only to fall apart in January and February.
But this team does have a different feel from Shyatt's other teams. It seems to have more determination. It has developed an us-against-the-world mentality. It also will be playing against an ACC that presents fewer certain defeats and more upset opportunities than usual. Entering league play, the Tigers remained undefeated but largely disrespected.
Every game we play, Scott said, we're the underdog.
Shyatt knows there are skeptics the Tigers lost to Duke in their ACC opener and that there's nothing he can do to change their minds.
I'm not sure anybody can talk to the skeptics, Shyatt said. I just want us to focus on what we do best. I want us to focus on the positives. I tell our players to be proud of who you are, remember where you're from, and keep working hard.
Bowden Rejects Serious Fiddling
If you're a big-time Clemson football fan, you'd better sit down before reading any further: Head coach Tommy Bowden said he doesn't plan to make any staff changes, and that he'll hire a special teams coach only if one falls into his lap.
Bowden's football house is on fire, and he's trying to put out the blaze with one thimble full of water. His team did nothing right in the Tangerine Bowl against Texas Tech except show up on time. The offense was clueless and slow, the special teams were horrendous again, and the defense was cut to pieces by the awful performances of the offense and the special teams.
Early tidbits from the recruiting trail have not been positive for the Tigers, who are once again being beaten in-state by South Carolina. According to some recruiting experts, eight or nine of the top 10 players in the Palmetto State are committed to the Gamecocks. It looks as if Bowden may be treating high school coaches much like he treats the fans and the media with an unhealthy dose of arrogance.
The positive of going to a third-rate bowl game (if that can be considered a positive) was washed away by the 55-15 pounding the Tigers received from a mid-level Big 12 team. Then, after more than a week of silence, Bowden met with several reporters and declared that things weren't as bad as they seemed. The most common reactions: What team is he watching? What team is he coaching?
Bowden did admit he made one mistake, a mistake we've told you about several times. He admitted he shouldn't have redshirted all of his freshman offensive linemen this season. That certainly was a significant error, and it's great that he finally realized it, but that's the least of his problems these days.
On the day Bowden's state-of-the-program talk hit the papers, a column by veteran ACC writer Carlton Tudor in the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer predicted that the Tigers would finish ninth in the 2003 ACC race. Most Clemson fans don't want to admit it, but it's a possibility probably not a good possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.
There's a famous story about how Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Bowden is fiddling at Clemson now, but if he doesn't make major changes soon or somehow win without those changes next season most insiders believe he'll be fiddling somewhere else by January 2004.