March 6, 2007
CLEMSON In the last week of the regular season, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell and his players were saying the right things, offering the typical platitudes about persevering and continuing to fight through difficult times.
You wanted to believe them when they said they were still having fun, that morale was high despite a gruesome stretch that saw them lose nine of 11 games after a 17-0 start.
When a 74-70 overtime win at home against Miami stopped the bleeding, the players declared that the good vibes were back. After another win in the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech, their record stood at 21-9 and 7-9 in the ACC, and it was easier to believe them.
It was hard to buy the notion that this team magically had rediscovered its mojo in a game it probably should have lost against the last-place Hurricanes. That's because, aside from an overtime period that witnessed the Tigers producing some rare clutch plays and even rarer some made free throws, this was a team that was afflicted with the same old problems.
Inexplicable shooting droughts late in games. Porous defense, particularly around the basket. Missed shots, particularly around the basket. And, yes, missed free throws.
Clemson still might pull everything together and make a run in the ACC Tournament to secure an NCAA bid, which would be its first since 1998. But until the regular-season finale at Tech, the Tigers did not give off even a remote impression that such a transformation was imminent.
As optimistic as Purnell tried to sound following the tenuous win over Miami, the inescapable reality was that too many players were playing poorly for Clemson to do what's necessary to avoid falling into the NIT for the third straight year.
Before a big Feb. 22 game against Duke in Clemson, Purnell tried an experiment that proceeded to blow up in his face. Seeking to give his offense a jolt of life, he started guard K.C. Rivers in place of forward James Mays.
Starting Rivers wasn't a bad idea. In fact, plenty of Clemson fans had wondered long before why he wasn't in the starting lineup. But bringing Mays off the bench seemed a curious move, even though he had struggled somewhat leading up to the Duke game. The most logical switch would have been starting Rivers for forward Sam Perry, who might be the worst starter in the ACC.
The move didn't pay off against the Blue Devils. Mays made a few plays early but seemed lethargic thereafter. Two days later at Boston College, Mays came off the bench again and scored a season-low one point in just 15 minutes.
Purnell said Mays sat the 25 minutes because the coach didn't like his effort early in the game. Mays made his displeasure evident while on the bench, sullenly staring at the action with complete disinterest.
Perry moved to the power forward position and was absolutely awful in 25 minutes that might have been better spent back home in Clemson. He grabbed just two rebounds and scored one point on 0-for-7 shooting, missing many of those shots from close range.
Mays was back in the starting lineup against Miami, and his production (19 points and 10 rebounds in 35 minutes) made it easy to wonder whether benching him at BC was really worth whatever punishment Purnell was trying to deliver.
Perry, meanwhile, entered Purnell's doghouse as Mays exited. Perry played just three minutes, his lowest total since early in his freshman season, and drew two fouls with a turnover.
Given the disappearances of Perry and some other players Purnell was counting on before the season, there's no doubt that the coach will have to pull off a masterful effort to get this team into the NCAA Tournament. This is not a group that is in disarray, and there's little evidence of dysfunction, but there just isn't a whole lot to work with right now, especially offensively.
Sophomore Julius Powell and freshman David Potter were supposed to be dependable reserves who could come in and make shots. Instead, they're buried on the bench, as Purnell relies on other options.
Junior walk-on Matt Morris has no business playing in the ACC, but he played meaningful minutes against BC and Miami. Against the Hurricanes, Morris and freshman A.J. Tyler were the first ones off the bench, as Perry, Potter and Powell looked on.
It was hard to question Purnell's logic, because Morris and Tyler were simply better options at the time. But it certainly didn't bode well for Clemson's hopes of turning this thing around enough to end up in the field of 65.
TALENT, CONCERNS AT TAILBACK
Last fall, tailback depth seemed the least of Tommy Bowden's worries.
Sophomore James Davis and freshman C.J. Spiller were lighting it up, and behind them was promising redshirt freshman Demerick Chancellor. Jo Jo Cox, who signed with the Tigers in February 2006 before failing to qualify, was planning to sign with Clemson again, after spending the fall at Fork Union Military Academy.
A few months later, there's almost no depth at the position. Chancellor transferred because he knew he wouldn't play much behind Davis and Spiller. Then, in February, school president James Barker denied an appeal that would have allowed Cox to sign with the Tigers after an admissions committee initially barred his entry.
Now the Tigers are in a major quandary. Beyond Davis and Spiller, there's converted defensive back Ray Ray McElrathbey and walk-on Paul Macko.
McElrathbey switched to the position late in the 2006 season and offers some talent, but there's no telling how quickly he'll grasp all the nuances of Rob Spence's offense. Macko, for all of the respect he's earned during practice, is not someone who should be getting any meaningful snaps in games that matter.
Between now and the Labor Day home opener against Florida State at Death Valley, Bowden and his staff hope to find a tailback somewhere in hopes of shoring up depth. Another option is making a tailback out of someone already on the team.
A problem area could become a disaster if Spiller ends up transferring to Florida. In January, he opted to remain at Clemson, after telling his mother he planned to return close to his home in Lake Butler, Fla., and play for the Gators. Everything seems fine on the surface, but some team insiders are not convinced that Spiller will remain at Clemson. If he ends up bolting this summer, he'll leave the Tigers' backfield in an enormous pinch.