January 3, 2005 CLEMSON If the view of Clemson basketball looked familiar entering the new year, it was because the Tigers have been down this road many times before.
As Clemson entered ACC play, the old, familiar question popped up: After laying waste to the MEAC and the Big South, can the Tigers be competitive in the ACC?
Let there be no doubt. The Tigers are better. The additions of guard Cliff Hammonds, swingman Cheyenne Moore and forwards Sam Perry and James Mays have made the Tigers more athletic and enabled them to be more aggressive. Senior center Sharrod Ford is playing the best basketball of his career. Junior forward Akin Akingbala, a 6-9, 220-pounder always considered a long-term project, is becoming a productive player. Erratic sophomore guard Vernon Hamilton has improved his shooting and ball-handling. Even senior forward Olu Babalola has straightened up after his suspension in late November for complaining about playing time. Babalola returned for the Ohio State game and was a major contributor against the Buckeyes. "Olu gives us athleticism and emotion," Purnell said. "When he brings those two things, we're a much better team. When he came back (from the suspension), he showed that he gets it. I want him to enjoy his senior year. If he plays like he did (against Ohio State), playing time will not be a concern." In early December, the Tigers beat South Carolina on the road and OSU at home. They lost to Boston College by nine points on the road, thanks in part to some lopsided officiating. The biggest disappointment in the first two months of the season was the 1-2 record at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, with a victory over Indiana State and losses to Alabama-Birmingham and Georgetown. "I was interested and concerned about how we would react after the Hawaii trip," said coach Oliver Purnell, after the Tigers smothered East Carolina 74-40 on Dec. 29. "We played our worst half of the season against Georgetown. Was there going to be a hangover or a lack of confidence? It was good to see that we didn't have a hangover." They are better. Even the most cynical of Clemson basketball observers will agree that this is the best Clemson team since Rick Barnes left town. But will it matter? Will it matter in an ACC that is stacked with top-25 teams? The addition of the freshmen has allowed Purnell to start installing his type of game 94 feet of pressure, push the ball when the opportunity is available. The Tigers played that way against less talented teams. Can they play that way in the ACC? Everyone close to the program has his doubts, including Purnell. "We're not where we need to be, but we played better," Purnell said. "I just have to keep reminding myself that we're young." Rookies Making Big Contributions Through 11 games, the freshmen had provided almost 35 percent of the team's points and rebounds and almost 40 percent of the assists and steals. "We've got to have a number of guys play well, and we've got to have balanced scoring inside and outside," Purnell said. "If we can do those two things, we're going to be tough to beat." Hammonds, who is shooting 38 percent from behind the arc, made four or more three-point goals in four of the first 12 games. He has tremendous poise and intelligence for a rookie, and he also is developing a reputation as one of the team's best defenders. Moore isn't shooting as well as Hammonds, but he did make the biggest shot in the first 12 games when he made a three-point goal with 3.4 seconds remaining in overtime to beat South Carolina. The lanky 6-6 Moore also is a vital part of Clemson's press. Perry has been labeled the energy guy by Purnell. Perry comes off the bench in the second wave to help keep up the intensity. Entering the East Carolina game, he was fifth on the team in offensive rebounds, even though he was averaging just 13 minutes per game. Against the Pirates, Perry has six rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 17 minutes. "We recruited Sam for his toughness and his energy," Purnell said. "He just needs to get some experience." Mays is fourth on the team in rebounding, with almost four per game. He is being groomed to provide some depth inside. The freshmen have improved Clemson's bench significantly. In the first 12 games, the Tigers won the bench scoring statistic nine times. Defense Inspires Postseason Hopes Purnell's well-known commitment to defense and effort is starting to pay dividends. Clemson limited East Carolina to 40 points, 12 field goals and 21 percent shooting from the field, all season lows for the opposition. Through the first 12 games, the Tigers held eight opponents to less than 40 percent from the field. "Before the (ECU) game, we talked about locking a team down," Purnell said. "I thought our defense did a nice job." "You have to credit their defense," East Carolina coach Bill Herrion said. "They're a very good defensive team. They totally manhandled us inside." Perhaps the most intriguing thing for Clemson fans to watch during ACC play will be the Tigers' defense. Will it hold up? How will Purnell adjust? Will the Tigers adjust to tighter officiating in conference play? There's no doubt Purnell that will be more selective with the pressure. There's going to be more shifts in tempo. The Tigers can't press and run with the best teams in the ACC. Without their pressure to create some offense, the Tigers will have to continue to improve their execution in halfcourt sets. Ford, who had made 46 of his last 75 shots entering the Duke game on Jan. 2, is becoming a major force. The addition of some outside shooting from the freshmen and improved screening inside has Clemson's halfcourt offense headed in the right direction. One shooter the Tigers need is junior guard Shawan Robinson, who is still searching for consistency. After making 15 of his first 21 three-point attempts this season, Robinson made just seven of his next 35. The Tigers entered January with a 9-3 record, after the disappointing trip to Hawaii. That means the magic number for an NIT bid is six. Six conference victories would give the Tigers a 15-14 record entering the ACC Tournament.
Considering the way they have played this season and the schedule they have remaining (and barring any disastrous injuries), the Tigers have a very good chance to make the NIT. Of their 16 conference games, the Tigers have their projected basement brothers Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech twice each. Their one remaining non-conference game is against struggling Georgia in Greenville, S.C., on Feb. 16. The best opportunity for the Tigers to make a move will be Jan. 12 through Feb. 12, when they play four straight home games: N.C. State, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Miami. Clemson's ACC schedule does get off to a brutal start at Duke and Wake Forest at home. If Purnell can steer his young players through those two games without too much damage to their confidence, the Tigers should be able to right their ship. "We will play nine or 10 players, and I feel good about those nine or 10," Purnell said. "But we have to play hard. We can't have an energy drop."