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First Purnell Rule: Defense Never Rests

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  January 19, 2004 CLEMSON — All you need to know about Oliver Purnell's first season at Clemson was included in the stat sheet from the Tigers' recent 53-48 victory over Florida State. The Tigers (8-7, 1-3 ACC) shot 35 percent from the field and 56 percent from the free throw line, and they committed 18 turnovers. Yet they still managed to beat the more athletic Seminoles. “It's a win and it validates what we've been preaching — rebound and defend and we will have a chance to win,” Purnell said. “Consistent defense keeps you in games.” In their first three conference games, solid defense gave the Tigers a chance. Through 15 games overall, no team shot better than 50 percent from the field against them. Everyone knows that leaning too much on defense and rebounding can create ugly games, but for now that's the least of Purnell's concerns. “The uglier the game the better off we are,” Purnell said, “because that means we're making the other team do what they don't want to do.” Florida State scored just 19 points in the first half and did not have a player score in double figures. The Seminoles aren't the most skilled team in the ACC at the offensive end of the court, but they're not exactly chopped liver, either. “The thing that really disappointed me after the game was the media's portrayal of Florida State,” Purnell said. “They're an excellent team. I'm telling you. Watch this team. They're pretty good, but they're all that way in the ACC.” If Purnell had a couple of shooters on his roster, the Tigers actually might be dangerous. But there isn't a consistent jump shooter anywhere to be found. “We're not a highlight reel offensively,” Purnell said. But the Tigers do hit the boards, and they will get on the floor after a loose ball. This team knows it has to do the little things to have any type of chance to compete in the ACC. Attitude Another Hoops Focus Purnell is being tough with this team, and his toughness is starting to show. Unlike in previous seasons, the Tigers have yet to roll over and take a serious beating. Duke has much better players, but the Blue Devils had to work to get away from the Tigers. Clemson was within single digits of Wake Forest late in the second half. Purnell has spent much of his first season getting to know his players. He made his first major statement in the Wake game. Junior forward Olu Babalola suffered three turnovers early in the first half, then sat for the rest of the game. Purnell later said Babalola stayed on the bench because he had a negative attitude and that the message had been received. Before the Florida State game, Babalola was quoted as saying he didn't understand why he spent so much time on the bench. Babalola started the FSU game, but he was still loose with the ball. “I believe we delivered the message in a positive vein,” Purnell said. “You have to deliver messages in different ways to different players.” Babalola quickly turned in one of his best games of the season, in the 86-69 loss to N.C. State. He had 10 points, six rebounds and five assists, but another number on his stat line said just as much: zero turnovers. Maybe Purnell is starting to get through to Babalola. Purnell recently delivered another type of message to Julian Betko. The sophomore swingman asked Purnell for an honest assessment of his position in the program and his chance for playing time in the future. After receiving an answer, which wasn't at all optimistic, Betko asked for his release and transferred to Butler. Insiders said there likely will be others following Betko out the door as Purnell continues to shape his roster. Meanwhile, the player who has made the most improvement this season is freshman point guard Vernon Hamilton. The most impressive part of Hamilton's game is his defensive instincts. He made two steals in the final minute to help preserve Clemson's victory over FSU. Purnell also likes Hamilton because the rookie handles criticism well. “Vernon spearheaded our defense against Florida State all night long,” Purnell said. “I'm hard on point guards. I'm never going to be satisfied with them. Any time you have a kid like Vernon who has the ability to make plays and forget their mistakes, you've got something. He's got that. The only thing missing is experience, and he's getting that this year.” One player who doesn't appear to be on the same path is senior Chris Hobbs. Hobbs, who has been hampered by an ankle sprain, just isn't getting any better. Clemson fans have been waiting for him to step up and make a difference for three years, but Hobbs apparently is destined to finish his career as a mediocre player. After watching his team suffocate Florida State, Purnell could not hide his disappointment after the Tigers got thrashed by N.C. State in Raleigh. “We were playing better, but we laid an egg tonight,” Purnell said. “We came out flat. We did not have an individual play well. When you do those two things against a good team at home, it's going to be a long night. It was a long night. They beat us in every effort area.” N.C. State provided some tough matchups for the Tigers. The worst was Julius Hodge against Chey Christie. Hodge had 23 points, while Christie took just four shots and didn't score. The Tigers are not going to beat anybody if Christie doesn't score. Still, the Tigers continued to fight. The Wolfpack got the Tigers down by 25 and was thinking of a major blowout, but the Tigers refused to go away. Purnell is trying to squeeze everything he can out of this team. “I hope we come back with the attitude that we're better than this,” Purnell said. “It's very important that we react in the right way. But you also have to be realistic and give N.C. State credit.” It's going to be interesting to see how long Purnell can keep his struggling team grinding and fighting. He's certainly made it clear that he's going to keep driving them, but losing always makes everything more difficult. Bowden Loses Key Players Early One of the biggest criticisms of Clemson's talent level since Tommy Bowden came to town is that Bowden has failed to produce many high NFL draft choices. This year, Bowden lost two underclassmen to the NFL: defensive tackle Donnell Washington and wide receiver Derrick Hamilton. Losing two juniors to the draft in the same year is a first in the Bowden era. Both departures were announced before Clemson's big recruiting weekend on Jan. 10. According to several NFL scouts, Washington and Hamilton made mistakes by leaving early. Washington declared shortly after the Peach Bowl victory over Tennessee. After canceling a couple of meetings, Hamilton finally met with Bowden. He announced he was giving up his senior season after that meeting. Washington said he was told he will be a late first-round or second-round pick because of his size (6-6, 320), but several NFL scouts and talent evaluators contacted by the Sports Journal weren't so sure. Because of the number of quality wide receivers in this year's draft, Hamilton expected to be picked a bit lower, and the scouts suggested he could fall past the third round. Washington wasn't a dominant player in the mold of the Perry brothers, but he did take up a lot of space. He certainly could have used another year of seasoning, especially to prove that the less complimentary parts of his reputation (poor conditioning, inconsistent work ethic) are unwarranted. Hamilton is 6-4, 205. He needs more weight, and he needs to improve his catching skills. He drops too many balls. During the Peach Bowl, Hamilton also dribbled a couple of punt returns. The one he did catch cleanly, he returned 58 yards. The Washington departure clearly hurt Clemson the most, because the Tigers (like most ACC teams) lack quality depth on the defensive line. The Tigers also will miss Hamilton's exciting play-making skills, but there are several impressive candidates to replace him. In the return game, speedsters Justin Miller and Airese Currie