February 20, 2007
CLEMSON Late in the season, it often can be instructive to rewind to the fall and revisit the big question marks that faced a basketball team.
Sometimes, suspicions can prove unfounded. What is expected to be a weakness can turn into a strength, and a coach can get a good chuckle about the supposedly glaring deficiencies of his team.
Other times, preseason skepticism can be dead-on. This certainly appears to be the case with Clemson's basketball team, whose weaknesses seem to be coming home to roost with the Tigers' late-season spiral.
When assessing the reasons behind Clemson losing seven of nine games after a blistering 17-0 start, it's easy to see that most of the problems could have been predicted before the season. Actually, they were predicted. It just took longer than expected for them to fully reveal themselves.
In October, coach Oliver Purnell expressed optimism that his fourth team would reach the NCAA Tournament. That optimism wasn't necessarily shared by the outside world. Clemson was forecast to finish ninth in the ACC, and few if any preseason magazines went out on a limb by predicting the Tigers' first foray into March Madness since 1998.
Back then, there were three legitimate questions facing this team:
Free throws. Clemson was abysmal last season from the line, and there was no reason to expect better results after the loss of the ACC's 2005-06 leader in free throw percentage (Shawan Robinson).
Lack of size in the post. Akin Akingbala graduated, leaving a big hole at center. Junior James Mays (6-9) and freshman Trevor Booker (6-7) were penciled in as the starters at power forward and center, respectively. It was easy to wonder how these two would hold up under the pounding of 16 ACC games.
Lack of outside shooting. The Tigers weren't a good shooting team last year, and the problems weren't going to be corrected overnight. K.C. Rivers was a good pure shooter. Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds were too streaky.
With four games remaining in the regular season, it was fair to say that all three of those issues had come back to haunt the Tigers.
The free throw shooting improved in some respects, but it still loomed large in a few defeats. Clemson was out-rebounded over seven straight games, with Booker losing some of his edge against taller and more physical counterparts. And the Tigers' inability to make clutch outside shots doomed them on more than one occasion.
The first two problems should not be surprising. The free throw woes probably will be corrected over time, as Purnell brings in more fundamentally sound players. And it's tough to expect Clemson to own the inside, with Booker making his first foray through the ACC.
But an inability to make shots late in games more specifically, the inability of anyone to step up and be a go-to scorer down the stretch is what could end up costing Clemson an NCAA appearance that once seemed likely.
In losses to Wake Forest, Virginia and Duke, the Tigers unraveled down the stretch of games that were there for the taking. In each instance, they missed a gaggle of open shots, from both outside and inside.
They were tied at Duke with 3:30 left but didn't manage a field goal until five seconds remained. They were up 16 against Virginia with 8:47 left but didn't produce another field goal and lost by one. They were up six at Wake Forest with six minutes left but again couldn't muster a basket thereafter.
Much of the blame for the droughts should be on Rivers, who scored in double figures in the first 18 games. After going 4-for-4 from three-point range in a loss at Maryland, Rivers shot 4-for-30 over his next seven games.
Rivers bristled when asked if he was in a slump, but there was really no other way to describe it. He scored in double figures just twice over the seven-game stretch heading into a crucial home date with Maryland.
Mays said the problems are mental and expressed hope that the team wouldn't split into selfish factions as the losses mounted.
"We've still got an opportunity here," said Mays, whose team needed three wins in its final four conference games to finish 8-8 in the ACC. "We've got a good record, but are we going to be satisfied with that?"
CONTROVERSY MIXED FOR BOWDEN
Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden probably chalked up a victory in his mental scorebook after university president James Barker announced that the school would examine its admissions process for athletes.
Bowden might have lost some recruits who were kept from signing by the school's Athletic Admissions Review Committee (AARC), but he is winning the battle of perceptions, as fans turn their ire toward Barker and the university administration.
No doubt feeling some heat, Barker said the AARC's routines may need to be revised because the Clemson community is "in danger of becoming deeply divided."
"I will commit that Clemson will conduct a thorough review of its process, with full involvement of faculty, admissions officials and athletics staff," the president said. "Ultimately, we may decide to keep the process we have, make minor modifications, tighten standards further, or create an entirely new system."
There's little doubt that changes will be made to an admissions process that left coaches livid after they were forced to cease their recruitment of numerous prospects. Three of them then signed with North Carolina, Georgia and Notre Dame.
Bowden has been frustrated with the academic side for quite some time, and that frustration boiled over after Clemson was not allowed to sign highly rated receiver Dwight Jones and running back Jo Jo Cox, who signed with the Tigers a year earlier before failing to meet NCAA academic requirements.
Bowden is steamed, and probably justifiably so, that he's expected to compete for conference titles while watching some of his competitors snag players Clemson would not admit.
But this controversy has been beneficial to him, too, because it greatly reduced the heat that had been intense after Clemson lost four of its last five games to finish 8-5.
The majority of fans were not happy with Bowden after the Tigers closed the season with an ugly performance in a 28-20 Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky. After that debacle, it was clear that it wasn't going to be a pleasant offseason for the head man as he traversed the booster-club circuit.
Now, Bowden probably will get more standing ovations than jeers as he heads into his ninth season, one that could be his last if there's more mediocrity.