February 26, 2008
CLEMSON Oliver Purnell's team entered its Feb. 19 game at Florida State full of confidence.
The previous week, Clemson had presented a resounding answer to skeptics who wondered whether the Tigers would manage to recover from a devastating double-overtime defeat at North Carolina.
An 82-67 mashing of Georgia Tech at home, followed by a gritty 71-64 win at N.C. State, made the Tigers appear ascendant. They were 7-4 in the ACC, tied with Maryland for third. It was hard not to like the manner in which this team was winning sizzling shooting and stifling defense while gathering momentum for a first-day bye in the conference tournament.
The Tigers might have gone to Tallahassee thinking that, against a reeling team such as Florida State, they could play dead for a half and exit unscathed. They could not have been more wrong, and they suffered a 64-55 defeat that ultimately cost them sole possession of third place behind Duke and UNC.
Clemson was simply putrid in the first half, which saw FSU close with a 35-17 lead. After getting chewed out by their coach at halftime, the Tigers responded with much more fire in the second half. But it wasn't enough to make up for the earlier no-show against a team that had lost eight of its previous 10.
"Down 17, 18 points is just a bit much, the tale of the tape," Purnell said. "We had much more effort and energy in the second half, but when you get down 18 on the road in this league, it's difficult to get back. And we didn't put ourselves in position to get back."
It should be mentioned that this stuff can happen in the ACC, and particularly against FSU. The Seminoles' backcourt, even without injured Isaiah Swann, is experienced, skilled, fast and certainly capable of capitalizing on indifferent perimeter defense.
What's more, Clemson has given no evidence this season that one defeat will initiate a lengthy spiral. In 2007 and 2006, the Tigers watched their NCAA Tournament hopes fizzle largely because of prolonged losing streaks. This year, their closest thing to a streak consisted of back-to-back losses to UNC and Charlotte in early January.
"If you can avoid prolonged losing streaks or struggles, you're going to have a chance to steadily move up or be up there near the top of our league, which is hard to do," Purnell said. "But so far, we're hanging in there."
Looking at the shooting numbers, it was amazing that Clemson actually had a chance to win in the final minutes at FSU. The Tigers missed 24 of 27 shots from behind the three-point arc, and it was hard to see that coming. Over their previous four games, they'd drained 44 of 90 shots (49 percent) from long range.
In this one, junior K.C. Rivers missed nine of 10 three-pointers. Senior Cliff Hammonds missed five of six. Freshman Terrence Oglesby and sophomore David Potter combined to miss all seven of theirs.
Add in an awful defensive effort in the first half (FSU shot 61.9 percent) and typically bad free throw shooting (12-of-23), and it was a bad night all around for the Tigers.
On the positive side, it's not likely that Clemson will be this cold again from outside. The Tigers simply have too many good shooters for them to all come up empty on a regular basis, and a few more made shots in Tallahassee could have given Purnell's team a victory despite all the bad that occurred.
By the same token, though, there are no guarantees that the Tigers will return to the three-point excellence they posted before going cold at FSU. And it's important that their frontcourt emerge to help balance things out.
Sophomore center Trevor Booker has struggled since suffering a high-ankle sprain in a Jan. 27 defeat at Miami. It also didn't help that he was struggling with the flu against Georgia Tech and N.C. State.
The emphasis on long-range shooting also minimized Booker's effectiveness in the post. After registering double-figure shot attempts in six straight games over a January stretch, he went eight consecutive games with nine or fewer attempts. Included was a six-shot effort at Florida State (12 points) and a four-shot night against Georgia Tech (nine points).
Booker bears some responsibility for this. Against FSU, he was pushed around by veteran center Ryan Reid and wasn't able to establish inside position.
James Mays also has been a disaster at times. He hasn't been at full strength for quite some time, hampered by an assortment of injuries that include a fractured left (non-shooting) hand and a sore hip. But that doesn't come close to excusing his 0-for-10 night in Tallahassee, where he missed way too many shots from point-blank range. Mays went 6-of-23 from the field in a three-game stretch not good for a 6-9 post player, injuries or no injuries.
FAMILIAR PLACE: NCAA BUBBLE
Last year, Purnell clearly thought his team got the shaft from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The Tigers were relegated to the NIT for the third straight year, after finishing with more than 20 wins overall and a 7-9 conference record.
Before the season, Purnell spoke of his desire to "bust down the door to the NCAA Tournament," to leave no doubt on Selection Sunday. Despite the sour taste that came from the debacle in Tallahassee, his team remains in position to do that.
In late February, the Tigers were No. 24 in the RPI, with a strength of schedule ranked 27th. Unlike many ACC teams that suffered ugly defeats in November and December, they don't have any unsightly losses on their résumé.
The closing four-game stretch is fraught with peril. Clemson gets Miami at home, but the Hurricanes present problems with their backcourt quickness and frontcourt formidability. That much was apparent last month, when the Hurricanes overcame a late six-point deficit and beat the Tigers.
The next game at Maryland certainly won't be a piece of cake, and there's no telling what to expect out of Georgia Tech when Clemson visits Atlanta on March 6. The Tigers close the regular season with a visit from Virginia Tech, a team that has proved to be athletic and dangerous.
Clemson hasn't made the NCAA Tournament in a decade, and it'll be interesting to see how much pressure this team feels by the weight of that history. Busting in the NCAA door probably would mean winning three of the last four and finishing 10-6, and that would give the Tigers their best conference record since the ACC went to a 16-game schedule in 1992.
Winning three of four would be a tall order. But it probably wouldn't be a surprise, either.