January 24, 2006
CLEMSON -- Oliver Purnell's team is positively dreadful at free throws. It's often not much better at three-pointers. And its rebounding leaves plenty to be desired.
But if there's a quality that can sometimes offset those glaring deficiencies, it's this team's ability to show some resolve and toughness in the face of difficult circumstances.
The Tigers encountered significant adversity in mid-January. First, they butchered any chance to beat then-No. 1 Duke by missing 15 of 21 free throws in an 87-77 loss. Four days later, they went to Miami and unleashed a wretched shooting performance in a 62-38 embarrassment against the Hurricanes.
Two irrefutable conclusions came from those two defeats: This is a gang that cannot shoot straight, and a gang that could be tumbling into a season-long funk.
But when matters were at their most dire, Clemson responded by going to Georgia Tech and leaving with a 10-point victory. The win did not create the impression that this team will be challenging for an ACC title any time soon, but it did affirm that Purnell's team will not collapse emotionally under the weight of its shortcomings.
"We decided not to be frustrated," Purnell said. "It would have been easy to let some of the frustration the other night in Miami carry over."
There was plenty of frustration to go around. The Tigers were brutal at the free throw line against Duke and Miami, missing an astounding 22 of 32 shots from the stripe. They were just as bad from the field against the Hurricanes, taking 59 shots and missing 44 for a numbing 25.4 percent.
Clemson's perimeter futility against Miami's 2-3 zone -- the Tigers were 4-for-28 on three-pointers -- seemed to cement the notion that the way to beat this team is with a zone. Georgia did it and handed Clemson its first loss of the season. Virginia followed suit, as did Wake Forest and Miami. All were met with great success.
Purnell's team is far more perimeter-oriented this year, launching three-pointers at a rate that leads the ACC and is likely to result in a school record. But when you convert on those shots at a rate of less than 30 percent, it's hard to win games. It's almost impossible when you're shooting less than 25 percent on three-pointers against ACC teams, which was the case heading into the game at Georgia Tech.
"There are going to be nights that we struggle from the field," Purnell said. "A lot of those nights, we have a chance to win the ballgame by not allowing ourselves to be frustrated that we're missing shots and not really getting caught up in, Oh my God. We're missing shots and we can't win.' And we've done that this season."
Clemson had ample opportunity to succumb to its frustration at Georgia Tech. The Tigers missed their first six shots from three-point range and were getting hammered on the boards. But this team persevered and snapped out of the shooting slump, making six of its last eight attempts.
Purnell came up with his own solution on the defensive end, ordering his team into a 2-3 zone as Tech was threatening to put the game away early in the second half. The Tigers then joyfully watched the Yellow Jackets sink into their own shooting malaise, one that saw them make just three field goals in the final 14:16.
"We couldn't throw a rock in the ocean against Miami," Clemson point guard Vernon Hamilton said, "but right now it feels good to be on the other end."
Clemson left Atlanta at 3-3 in the conference, with an eight-day break ahead. The Tigers' shooting woes probably will crop up again, because these are problems that aren't going to be cured overnight. But at least Purnell knows his team won't give in, even when the outlook appears almost hopeless.
"It would have been easy for us to get down and get into a slump," Hamilton said, "but we built off it, and it ended up putting us in good position."
MAYS SITUATION DOESN'T ADD UP
At halftime of the Duke loss, suspended forward James Mays was made available for a question-and-answer session.
There were plenty of questions but very few answers. Mays, a 6-9 sophomore who was declared academically ineligible a few days after Christmas, was extremely guarded and seemed uncomfortable while refusing to comment after almost every question.
Mays didn't want to talk about the particulars of how he was declared ineligible, and that was understandable. What was peculiar was how Mays responded to a few seemingly innocuous queries.
For reasons that no one is willing to explain publicly, Mays is not attending classes at Clemson during the spring semester. He said he plans to be back, "most likely in the summer."
Why aren't you in classes, James? No comment. What do you plan on doing between now and the summer? No comment. Oliver North was more forthcoming to Congress.
After Mays' suspension, Purnell said Mays bombed a final exam and let his grade-point average slip too low. Mays agreed with his coach's explanation, but all the strangeness that accompanied this awkward press conference made it easy to wonder if there isn't more to this story. Who leaves school merely because his GPA is too low? How can someone bring his GPA back up to an acceptable level if he's not in school?
Sources said Mays, Clemson's leading rebounder through 11 games, isn't a lock to return to the Tigers. Other teams began recruiting him as soon as word of his ineligibility spread, and it's not out of the question for him to go somewhere else, despite his and Purnell's claims that he'll be back.
ADAMS' RETURN WILL BOLSTER LINE
When Gaines Adams decided to remain at Clemson instead of bolting early for the NFL, the Tigers' coaches heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Adams' return at the defense's "bandit" end position gives the Tigers what figures to be one of the ACC's most dynamic defensive players in 2006. But more importantly, it keeps coordinator Vic Koenning from having heart palpitations when he looks at his two-deep on the defensive line.
Had Adams skipped his senior season, he would have left a huge void at his position. True freshman Phillip Merling exceeded expectations behind senior Charles Bennett at the other end position last fall, but no one inspired any confidence behind Adams.
Defensive line is an area where past recruiting mistakes are still apparent, because Koenning has noticeable depth issues that would have been glaring had Adams departed.
Cortney Vincent, who played sparingly behind Adams last season as a redshirt freshman, might be better suited at linebacker. Xavier Littleberry, a player who had immense potential, was booted off the team for good after his second brush with the law in 14 months. Junior Brandon Cannon and sophomore Kwam Williams (if academically eligible) are, at best, serviceable backups. Redshirt freshman Antwon Murchison is ideally suited for defensive tackle, but Koenning might not have any choice but to leave him at end.
That means two incoming freshmen, Jamie Cumbie and Ricky Sapp, will be looked upon to contribute immediately to provide depth behind Adams and Merling.
It's not an ideal situation for Koenning. But it's far preferable to the predicament he would have faced had Adams bolted for the pros.