February 12, 2008
CLEMSON As the calendar turned to February, it was easy to think that Clemson's season might be taking a turn for the worse.
The Tigers were coming off a 75-72 loss at Miami, a defeat that saw them squander a six-point lead in the final minutes. And early in that game, starting center Trevor Booker suffered what appeared to be a nasty high-ankle sprain.
Three days later, things got worse when starting point guard Demontez Stitt tweaked his knee during practice. The prognosis: torn cartilage, arthroscopic surgery and at least two weeks on the shelf.
All of this was not coming at a good time for a team that was hoping to mount a late-season run to secure its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. This was supposed to be the season that fifth-year coach Oliver Purnell finally ended that hex, but doing so certainly didn't seem like a given after yet more injury woes.
It wasn't as if Clemson was mowing down the opposition before the two injuries. The Tigers had lost five of 10 games after a 10-0 start, and senior forward James Mays suffered a fractured hand Jan. 6 against North Carolina. They were sloppy on offense in a 13-point loss at Duke, and they were lucky to get to overtime in the next game at home against Wake Forest (an 80-75 win).
Clemson was awful at the beginning and end of the loss at Miami, taking ill-advised shots and allowing star UM guard Jack McClinton to win the game almost by himself.
But a couple of interesting things happened just as some folks began contemplating a fourth consecutive trip to the NIT. Booker's ankle injury wasn't as debilitating as feared, and Stitt wasn't missed nearly as much as predicted.
The Tigers posted a resounding 78-56 victory over Boston College at home, using dominant defense and tenaciousness on the boards to send a message that the latest dose of adversity wouldn't break them.
Then they hit the road for an important game at Virginia. The result an 82-51 thrashing, Clemson's most lopsided ACC road victory ever sent an even stronger message, as the Tigers improved to 17-5 and 5-3 in the ACC.
Granted, the two victories came against perhaps the 11th- and 12th-best teams in the conference. And not many people were going to take real notice unless the Tigers won at UNC (they didn't) three days later.
Nevertheless, the two victories were a positive sign for a veteran team that was to play six of its final nine games on the road.
"We're playing pretty good basketball right now," Purnell said after the Virginia game.
That assertion was hard to deny.
HAMMONDS LOOKING STRONG
A big reason Clemson seemed to be getting hot at the right time was senior guard Cliff Hammonds, who moved to full-time at the point after Stitt's surgery.
Here was the biggest indication Hammonds was playing well: After the two victories, Purnell wouldn't guarantee that Stitt would have his starting job back when he recovered.
"If we continue to play better and better, why not?" Purnell said when asked about the prospect of maintaining the same starting lineup, which also featured senior Sam Perry at small forward.
Hammonds was magnificent against BC and UVa. Against the Eagles, he set an early tone defensively by harassing point guard Tyrese Rice. Rice scored a game-high 17 points but committed six turnovers and got off just eight shots. Hammonds had five of his team's 10 steals.
K.C. Rivers was the story of the throttling of UVa, scoring a career-high 32 points while going 8-of-11 on three-pointers. But Hammonds was the glue who held everything together, scoring 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting with 11 assists, four steals and two turnovers. He also frustrated another talented guard, as Sean Singletary scored just 14 points and committed five turnovers.
Singletary was held scoreless until late in the first half, after Hammonds went to the bench to take a break.
"He's a very underrated player in this league," Purnell said of Hammonds, whose natural position is shooting guard. "There are five, six players that have his stat line in so many categories. He's the most underrated player I've seen in this league since I've been in it. If you think about what he's done, what he's been asked to do, it's a tremendous effort every single night. I don't mind singing his praises."
Stitt has had his moments this season, and it's hard to be too critical of the freshman given that this is his first pass through ACC play. But the wins over BC and UVa demonstrated that Clemson might be a better team with Hammonds at the point and Perry at small forward.
The offense loses Stitt's ability to penetrate, but that might not be such a bad thing. Stitt was often out of control as he drove, throwing up awkward shots and often appearing uncertain whether to shoot or kick to the outside.
Things seem to run more smoothly with Hammonds running the show. The offense is more patient, more willing to methodically work the ball inside to free up shots from the perimeter.
In the two victories, Clemson shot 23-of-48 from three-point range. Against Virginia, the top three backcourt players (Rivers, Hammonds and freshman Terrence Oglesby) combined to shoot 14-of-22 from beyond the arc.
To be sure, the Tigers are not out of the woods yet. Booker probably won't be fully healthy for the rest of the season, and Mays probably will play with a cast on his left, non-shooting hand for most of it.
But this team's fundamental goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament was well within reach heading into the final stretch of the season.
FOOTBALL SIGNEES RAISE HOPES
Tommy Bowden likes to say the pressure is always high at a place like Clemson. Well, that pressure is about to be ratcheted up another notch, with the addition of what has all the appearances of his best signing class in 10 years.
Clemson fans haven't been enamored with coming up just short of the ACC title game for three straight years. The hardest to stomach was 2007, when the Tigers had the division title gift-wrapped after Florida State pulled off an upset at Boston College late in the regular season.
The Eagles went to Death Valley and orchestrated a stunning upset, leaving fans wondering when they'd claim their first conference title since 1991.
Clemson elevated its recruiting from 2005 to 2007. This year, the Tigers took it to another level, bringing in a class ESPN ranked No. 2 nationally.
Bowden's job is safe, after the contract he signed following his December flirtation with Arkansas.
But the signing day haul raised the stakes considerably. As happy as fans are now, the discontent will be pervasive if the Tigers don't cash in with an ACC title soon.