April 3, 2007
CLEMSON In the hours and days that followed Clemson's first-round ouster in the ACC Tournament, the Tigers' basketball season was branded a disappointment by plenty of folks inside and outside the program.
This was a team that most preseason publications left out of the NCAA Tournament, so that Clemson missed out on the event for the ninth straight year was no big surprise.
But this also was a team that started 17-0, tying a school record for the longest winning streak, and one that was the last unbeaten team remaining in college basketball. After the Tigers won at N.C. State to improve to 17-0 and 3-0 in the ACC, getting into the Big Dance seemed a foregone conclusion. In fact, fourth-year coach Oliver Purnell said after that game that the expectations should be expanded to include challenging for the conference's regular-season title.
In light of all that, it was difficult to consider the season a success after Clemson's one-point loss to Florida State in Tampa, a defeat that saw the Tigers go scoreless in the final four minutes while committing a turnover with eight seconds left.
The Seminoles' victory sealed Clemson's third consecutive trip to the NIT, and it was easy to wonder how in the world Purnell would get his team to recover. At the time, it also was hard to imagine this team turning the season into a success no matter how far it went in the NIT.
But Purnell, who had presided over steady and substantial progress in his first three years, saw things differently. When the NIT field was announced, he had the clarity to realize that important things still could be accomplished, even though the Tigers lost 10 of their final 14 games to cement a monumental collapse and fall from NCAA consideration.
When Purnell saw that his team was a No. 1 seed, he was encouraged because he knew the chances were good that the Tigers could hold serve for three home games and advance to the NIT semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Clemson lost in the NIT first round two years ago, and last year the Tigers advanced to the second round before falling at Louisville. Purnell might have gone into this season stating that reaching the NCAA Tournament was the expectation, but clearly he saw that going deeper in the NIT would constitute progress for a program that is trying to achieve formidability in a difficult league.
The NIT unfolded exactly according to Purnell's plan. Clemson seemed disinterested while fending off East Tennessee State in the first round, but the Tigers were galvanized in a second-round blowout of Mississippi. By the time Syracuse visited a packed Littlejohn Coliseum for an electric quarterfinal matchup, it was safe to say that Clemson had been afflicted with NIT fever.
At more established programs, advancing in a second-rate tournament might be greeted with a yawn. At Clemson, appearing on national television for five straight games is a rare and valuable opportunity. The Tigers beat the Orange, then held off Air Force in the semifinals.
Another carrot was tying the school record for wins (25) with the victory over Air Force. A triumph over West Virginia would have clinched the outright record, while also giving the Tigers their first postseason hoops title of any kind since 1939, when they claimed the Southern Conference championship.
"I definitely think it would be a feather in our cap," Purnell said before the NIT title game. "It would be another sign that our program is going in the right direction. Every year we've been here, we've gotten better and better."
RETURNEES, LANDSCAPE DESIRABLE
Clemson lost to West Virginia (78-73) in the NIT championship game, but the outlook appears bright for next season, when Purnell is expected to return everyone but senior point guard Vernon Hamilton.
The loss of Hamilton will leave a big hole, but not one that will be impossible to fill. The coaching staff loves Demontez Stitt, an incoming freshman who will be given every opportunity to start right away.
A few years ago, Purnell whiffed on a talented but troubled prospect named Troy Mathis. He was considered the Tigers' point guard of the future, but he never came close to materializing and ultimately transferred.
That experience reminded everyone that nothing is a sure thing, even though Stitt has produced rave reviews so far. Nevertheless, Purnell has options at the position. He can move Cliff Hammonds over from shooting guard, and K.C. Rivers also is capable of running the show for stretches.
Clemson's hopes for 2007-08 look even better given what everyone else in the ACC is losing. The teams the Tigers could be battling for an NCAA at-large bid Virginia Tech, Boston College, Florida State, Maryland, Virginia all are suffering substantial losses.
After reaching the NIT final this time, the only way to make progress next season is to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. And the Tigers seem like a solid bet to do it.
FOOTBALL ENJOYING POWELLS IDEAS
His hiring was questioned by some, but new football assistant Andre Powell has been a breath of fresh air at Clemson's spring practices.
Powell was looking for work after North Carolina's John Bunting was fired, and he landed on his feet when Tommy Bowden gave him a call. Powell took over for the departed Burton Burns as the Tigers' running backs coach, but a more immediate concern was addressing Clemson's woeful kickoff coverage.
The Tigers' coverage was awful last year, and at the time the coaching staff was thin-skinned about the subject. Assistant David Blackwell failed to come up with a solution, so Bowden tried Ron West. That change didn't produce consistent results, either, so now Bowden is hoping that Powell will shore things up in a hurry.
Powell isn't afraid to say that the schemes used prior to his arrival were all wrong. His philosophy is a sharp departure from last year's marriage to staying in lanes. He's more in tune with flexible schemes that call for adapting and reacting, instead of sticking with a given method even if it's not working.
Powell has the statistics to back up his plan. After the Tar Heels' coverage ranked as one of the worst in Division I-A in 2006, they improved to No. 14 nationally last season.
"Some of the things we did were just so common sense," Powell said. "It just took me spending a couple of days with a couple of coaches and explaining kickoff-coverage theory."
Don't be surprised if Powell orchestrates a similar turnaround at Clemson.