January 10, 2006
CLEMSON -- The fun is over.
That essentially summed up the mentality of Clemson's basketball staff after sophomore forward James Mays was declared academically ineligible and lost for the season.
Coach Oliver Purnell and his assistants weren't about to write off the year after losing their leading rebounder. But it was undeniable that Mays' loss forced a major shift in Purnell's game-planning, not to mention the expectations for the coach's third season with the Tigers.
Having lost star center Sharrod Ford, Purnell entered 2005-06 bent on making up for it by implementing a frenzied pace punctuated by running and pressing. The style looked brilliant at times during Clemson's 11-0 start. The Tigers jumped all over Penn State and South Carolina in back-to-back wins, forcing 36 turnovers and dominating in transition.
Though a lack of depth figured to be an issue heading into ACC play, Purnell had every intention of maintaining that tempo to highlight his team's athleticism and perhaps give the Tigers an edge against more talented teams. That approach went down the tubes after Mays allowed his grade-point average to slip enough for him to be declared ineligible, shortly after Christmas.
Name two players that Purnell could not afford to lose, and Mays would be one of them. The 6-9 nuisance was the centerpiece of the team's shift to a more aggressive style. He was the point man in a full-court press that was used extensively before his loss. He also was a key figure on the offensive end, slashing to the basket and crashing the offensive glass.
After the bad news hit, Purnell had no choice but to change things up. This is a team, after all, that was pared to just 10 scholarship players with Mays unavailable. That includes redshirt freshman shooting guard Troy Mathis, who still hasn't fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. It also includes freshman forward Raymond Sykes, a 6-9, 205-pounder who isn't yet fit for even spot duty.
It was immediately evident that Mays' loss dealt this team a tough blow, both emotionally and physically. The Tigers were killed on the offensive glass in a defeat at Georgia, their first of the season. Then they returned home and were humiliated in a 74-69 loss to Elon, a team that entered the game without a Division I victory.
A few games into ACC play, it became obvious that this team isn't going to look pretty very often without Mays. The Tigers' half-court offense has looked disjointed, with poor spacing and few passes into the post. Clearly, Clemson's best -- and often only -- route to winning is predicated on getting hot from long range and playing aggressive defense.
"We're the type of team that will struggle offensively at times," Purnell said. "That's why we harp so much on defense and rebounding."
There is cause for a little optimism, despite the despair of losing such a key player. The ACC certainly appears down this year, and Clemson got an excellent break in scheduling that Purnell is hoping to exploit. The Tigers have home-and-home meetings with Florida State, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, while getting Duke, Boston College, N.C. State and Maryland just one time apiece.
That's a schedule that should make life without Mays at least a little bit easier, while giving Clemson a shot at equaling or even surpassing last season's
5-11 conference record. At the same time, even the Tigers themselves likely realize that their hopes of playing their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble have all but burst.
AWKWARD HINES CHAPTER CLOSING?
By the time Clemson wrapped up its 19-10 Champs Sports Bowl win over Colorado, the word was out: It might have been tight ends coach Jack Hines' last game with the Tigers. Hines was looking for work elsewhere, and he probably wasn't doing it by choice.
Normally, the (apparent) imminent departure of the lowest-paid coach on the staff wouldn't be big news. But this development carried deeper context because Hines happens to be coach Tommy Bowden's brother-in-law. And for the better part of seven seasons at Clemson, many observers -- angry fans included -- figured that was the only reason the much-criticized Hines managed to remain on the staff.
This is a guy, after all, who has held four different positions under Bowden. He was moved from defensive backs to linebackers in 2002. Then he switched to "whip" linebackers and rovers in 2003. Then he moved to offense for the first time in his career, overseeing tight ends for the past two
This is the same guy whose job remained safe even after the 2004 season, when Bowden carried out the first purge of his coaching career by getting rid of Mike O'Cain, John Lovett and Thielen Smith.
By late December, rumors were rampant that Bowden -- whose sister Robyn is married to Hines -- had told Hines to seek another job. The last straw apparently was the 2005 season, when Hines presided over some critical gaffes.
In a 10-9 loss at Georgia Tech, a touchdown pass was called back because Clemson did not have enough men on the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Tigers didn't even have enough men on the field. Tight end Cole Downer was on the sidelines, and Hines reportedly told Downer he was not sure if he was supposed to be in the game.
Hines also was in charge of punt protection, which put forth the ugliest showing of Bowden's tenure. Five punts were blocked in 2005, after a total of seven punts were blocked in Bowden's previous six seasons. Clemson ranked last in the ACC in net punting, and Cole Chason often was dreadful.
It also hasn't helped that Hines has been a liability on the recruiting trail, the same flaw that precipitated the firings of Lovett and Smith. Though he's a superb talent evaluator, Hines rarely has been able to connect with recruits. His record of signing them was abysmal over the past three years.
By the time Clemson arrived in Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 22, there were strong rumblings that Hines was done. His wife didn't even make the trip, and Hines seemed even more distant than usual to other coaches. Shortly after he returned to Clemson, it was apparent that he was looking for lower-level coaching jobs.
The shame of the situation is that Hines is a nice guy who was in a bad situation while coaching for his brother-in-law, with whom he had a shaky relationship. It didn't help that, after spending his entire career on defense, Hines was moved out of his comfort zone to offense in 2004.
But it was hard to deny that this apparent move was long overdue.