By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier
November 22, 2006
CLEMSON -- Another year of mediocrity probably won't lead fans to stick "For Sale" signs in Oliver Purnell's yard. Another year without an NCAA appearance probably won't put him in hot water with Clemson's administration.
Purnell is in his fourth year with the Tigers, and there is no substantial outside pressure for him to make a big splash. That's just a fact of life in Clemson, where it could be argued convincingly that basketball plays fourth fiddle to football, baseball and football recruiting.
But even though Purnell probably doesn't have to worry about looking over his shoulder any time soon, there's no doubting the pressure he faces from within. Make no mistake: After back-to-back trips to the NIT, Purnell expects to take the next step to the NCAA Tournament this season.
"We're on the verge," he said. "We're right there."
Clemson hasn't been to the big NCAA event since 1998, the Tigers' longest drought since they broke the ice with their first trip in 1980. Virginia Tech, which last went in 1996, is the only ACC team with a longer streak.
To Purnell, last season offers all the evidence necessary to conclude that Clemson is ready to end the dry spell at eight years. The Tigers finished 19-13 and 7-9 in the ACC, with eight of their overall losses coming by six or fewer points.
"The bottom line is, if you want to make sure you get in, you need to get a few more wins," said Purnell, who entered this season 45-47 at Clemson. "It's been our pattern over the three years we've been here to increase the win totals every year, and we expect to do that again."
The Tigers under Purnell have not made a major impact in the ACC, but progress certainly is evident. His first team finished 10-18 and 3-13 but managed to upset No. 12 North Carolina and No. 15 N.C. State.
The 2004-05 team improved to 16-16 and 5-11, beating Maryland three times and giving UNC a major scare in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. Last year, the Tigers won four of their last five regular-season games to claim their most conference victories since 1997-98.
They would have made a compelling case for NCAA Tournament inclusion had they not given up overtime-forcing three-pointers inside of five seconds against N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, all of which went on to hand the Tigers excruciating losses.
Purnell thinks a veteran backcourt, plus the return of junior forward James Mays, will help make up the difference in those close games. Senior point guard Vernon Hamilton, the school's career leader in steals, will team with junior Cliff Hammonds to give the Tigers a capable backcourt duo that will force a lot of turnovers.
"There's an old adage that if you've got good guard play, good perimeter play, you've got a great chance to win," Purnell said. "Well, we've got a great chance to win."
The Tigers were a different team last season without Mays, who sat out the spring semester under academic suspension. Before the suspension, the Tigers ran and pressed their way to an 11-0 start that included a pasting of South Carolina and a championship in the San Juan Shootout. After, they lost 13 of their final 21 games as Purnell was forced to improvise without one of his most versatile players.
Clemson had glaring issues in the close losses -- abysmal free throw shooting, streaky outside shooting, shoddy three-point defense late in games -- but the absence of Mays is viewed as the biggest culprit.
The 6-9 Mays was the point man in Clemson's full-court press, and he was the team's leading rebounder and a productive scorer before the suspension. Purnell will ask Mays to do a lot in the frontcourt after the loss of center Akin Akingbala, who blossomed into one of the ACC's better post players last season as a senior.
"It's like a breath of fresh air, looking over there and seeing him," Hamilton said. "You want to smile. It just feels good to have him back because he's so versatile."
Mays' presence should allow for a return to the fast-paced style Purnell employed last season, but the coach doesn't yet know whether he'll have the depth to do it as much as he would prefer.
Incoming freshman Trevor Booker, a 6-7 bruiser who won South Carolina player of the year honors as a senior at Union High, already is starting -- at center. He has a reputation as a ferocious rebounder who can run the floor.
Purnell wants more production out of sophomore forwards Julius Powell and Raymond Sykes, and 6-10 freshman Karolis Petrukonis needs a lot of work.
With the offseason departure of guard Troy Mathis, who left with three years of eligibility remaining, Clemson has depth issues in the backcourt. Shooting guard Shawan Robinson, who hit 63 three-pointers last season, exhausted his eligibility.
Purnell is counting on freshman wing David Potter to give the Tigers another shooting threat. Hammonds and sophomore K.C. Rivers are expected to spell Hamilton at the point during some stretches. Rivers, probably the most complete player on the team, will come off the bench because of the concerns at backup point guard.
"He could end up being our leading scorer, coming off the bench," Purnell said. "He's like a starter, but backup point guard is a question. And I don't want to play all three of those guys at the same time, and then all three are tired and you need a point guard sub."
Free throw shooting is another major issue. The Tigers shot 61.7 percent from the line in 2005-06, putting forth pitiful showings against Duke (6-of-21), Miami (4-of-11), Virginia (17-of-35), Louisville (11-of-24) and Bethune-Cookman (14-of-31).
Given that Robinson shot 91.3 percent from the line, the odds of dramatic improvement in this area appear slim. Clemson shot 26-of-43 (60.4 percent) in its first three games this season, but Purnell remains confident that the numbers will get better.
"I'm really going out on a limb, huh?" Purnell said. "I think we'll be better because of experience, and we've been working at it. And I keep going back to the second half of last year. We got better and better. We spent time on it. We didn't run from it. We worked at it, and it's the same thing (now). We talk every day about how important it is to win at the end of games. There's no running from it. You've got to work on it."
Clemson got a break in scheduling last season, when 10 of its 16 conference games were against teams that finished with losing ACC records. With the exception of Florida State, the Tigers had to face the league's upper-tier teams (Duke, UNC, Boston College, N.C. State, Maryland) only one time apiece.
The road looks tougher this year, with Clemson holding home-and-home dates with Duke, BC, Georgia Tech, Maryland and FSU. Some teams that are expected to struggle (State, Wake, Miami) will meet the Tigers just once.
Add it all up, and the expectations from the outside might not be very high for Clemson this season. In Purnell's eyes, though, the pressure is on.
"The next step," he said, "is the NCAA Tournament."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 9-7 (4) 23-10 NCAA Sweet 16
1998 7-9 (4) 18-14 NCAA 1st Round
1999 5-11 (7) 19-14 NIT Runner-up
2000 4-12 (9) 10-20 None
2001 2-14 (9) 12-19 None
2002 4-12 (7) 13-17 None
2003 5-11 (8) 15-13 None
2004 3-13 (9) 10-18 None
2005 5-11 (9) 16-16 NIT 1st Round
2006 7-9 (7) 19-13 NIT 2nd Round
x -- won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Vernon Hamilton* 6-0/195 PG Sr.
Cliff Hammonds* 6-3/197 PG Jr.
James Mays* 6-9/225 BF Jr.
Sam Perry* 6-5/208 WF Jr.
Julius Powell 6-7/208 BF So.
K.C. Rivers 6-5/210 WG So.
Raymond Sykes 6-9/215 BF So.
Trevor Booker 6-7/215 C Fr.
Karolis Petrukonis 6-11/260 C Fr.
David Potter 6-6/180 WF Fr.
A.J. Tyler 6-9/225 BF Fr.
- -- returning starter
It was obvious how much Clemson missed forward James Mays last season, after he was slapped with an academic suspension just a few days before the ACC schedule started. Coach Oliver Purnell had to dial down his full-court pressure, in which Mays was a major catalyst. Written off earlier in his career, Vernon Hamilton has become the team's MVP. He's above-average off the dribble and a dogged defender who already holds the school's career steals mark. Lack of depth at point guard has forced K.C. Rivers into a sixth-man role, which is odd because he's easily the team's best all-around player. But Rivers will play a lot, and his shooting touch will be essential after the loss of Shawan Robinson.
Other Key Returnees
Guard Cliff Hammonds had a disappointing sophomore year, because of poor shooting from the field (40.2 percent), three-point range (28.3) and the free throw line (56.5). Hammonds showed early evidence of improvement in his shooting (10-18 on threes through four games) this season, and he's one of the more underrated defenders in the ACC, but the jury's still out on whether he can consistently make shots. Forward Sam Perry is a tenacious rebounder but is extremely limited on offense. Offseason knee surgery, plus a bad hamstring, hampered Perry early this season. Purnell is counting on more production from forwards Julius Powell and/or Raymond Sykes. Powell offers a pick-and-pop weapon who can drift out and drain three-pointers. Sykes never will be counted on for points, but he needs to become a dependable post backup who can block shots and scrap for rebounds.
Trevor Booker doesn't look or play like a freshman. He's already starting, and his explosiveness will help compensate for the loss of center Akin Akingbala. The 6-7 Booker plays center, and that could create some interesting matchups once ACC play starts. Purnell is expecting swingman David Potter to make some clutch shots. Potter has a nice stroke from three-point range, and he also possesses an impressive mid-range game. Center Karolis Petrukonis has a long way to go, but he'll get some minutes because of his big body.
ALSO Worth Noting
Opponents capitalized on Clemson's shooting inconsistency last season by playing zone, and the Tigers were troubled by Monmouth's matchup zone in the second game of this season. Purnell's team is at its best when it's running and scoring off turnovers, but it struggles when teams force it to be patient by running its halfcourt offense against zones. Booker already has made a big impression with his ability to dunk. Against Monmouth, he took one step from the free throw line and dunked over 7-2 John Bunch. Mays calls Booker "man-child." Why in the world did former coach Larry Shyatt burn Akingbala's redshirt in 2002-03? Purnell and his staff are wondering the same thing. Akingbala played just 65 minutes that season. He would have come in real handy this year, had he been redshirted as a rookie.
Chart By: The Clemson Insider