March 14, 2005 CLEMSON Let there be no doubt. Oliver Purnell's second season at Clemson should be labeled a success. Most Clemson teams limp through January, then play dead in February and March. But this team was different. The Tigers had a rare winning record in February, pulled off a stunning home victory against Virginia Tech, beat Maryland for a third time this season in the first round of the ACC Tournament, then scared top-seeded North Carolina before leaving Washington.
That's pretty heady stuff for Clemson basketball. The Tigers finished 10-18 last year, in Purnell's first season after arriving from his nine-year tenure at Dayton.
The 66-64 victory over Virginia Tech came on Senior Night, and both seniors center Sharrod Ford and forward Olu Babalola contributed key plays late in the game.
Much to the dismay of most of the crowd in attendance, Babalola launched a three-point shot with 10 seconds remaining and the Tigers down 64-61. But Babalola shocked the crowd by draining the trey to tie the game. The Hokies tried to push the ball, but junior guard Shawan Robinson intercepted a Tech pass and quickly got the ball ahead to Ford, who dunked it just before time expired. The play was reviewed. Ford's winning basket came with 0.2 seconds remaining. The crowd erupted and rushed the floor. The victory over the Hokies guaranteed the Tigers a non-losing season and a trip to the NIT.
Ford's game-winning dunk quickly put the game on the list of Clemson's most memorable basketball victories. Locals talked about the win as if it had NCAA implications, rather than simply securing a non-losing season.
After wrapping up the regular season with a loss at Georgia Tech, Clemson drew Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament. There was no way the Tigers could beat Maryland three times in one season, right? But it happened. It's been a while since Clemson "owned" somebody in the ACC, but the Tigers again took it to the Terps.
Clemson had not won a first-round game in the ACC Tournament since 2001, and it marked the first time the Tigers had beaten Maryland three times in one season. Ford and Babalola both were winless in the ACC Tournament until the Tigers disposed of the Terps. After the game, Purnell was the subject of a flattering Washington Post column, written by long-time college basketball observer and influential author John Feinstein.
"We're playing our best basketball of the season right now," Purnell said, "and have the feeling we can beat anybody."
"They played harder than us in all three games," said Maryland coach Gary Williams.
The Terps controlled Ford, who had just six points and eight rebounds, but they could do nothing with Robinson. He converted six of eight attempts from behind the arc and finished with 24 points.
Robinson's treys came thanks to good spacing by the Tigers. Maryland's sagging on Ford left the arc open, and the Tigers took advantage. Ford led the Tigers with five assists, the first time he had done that in 116 career games.
"We always talk about spacing the floor," Purnell said. "If they decide to double-team Sharrod and we are spaced, then someone is going to get a wide-open look from three."
Clemson entered the North Carolina game full of confidence, but when the Tigers had the Tar Heels on the ropes, they could not finish the deal. The Tigers led by 13 points with just under 10 minutes remaining, but they could not stop South Carolina native Raymond Felton, who scored UNC's final 10 points to save the Heels.
"We played well today," Purnell said, "for 37 minutes."
So it was off to the NIT. That's where the Tigers, 16-15 after the loss to Carolina, expect to do some serious damage. Can they continue their late-season surge?
With Clemson on a roll and South Carolina sinking in recent weeks, the buzz started around the state about a possible Clemson-USC matchup in the NIT. The question for NIT officials was, should they schedule the game in the first round, or should they take their chances and wait until the quarterfinals, with a trip to New York City on the line?
Purnell's techniques have taken hold and are beginning to grow. The Tigers play hard and defend. The difference in February was offense. The Tigers finally scored some points and found some consistency on the offensive end. Getting to New York would give the Tigers even more momentum heading into the offseason.
Spence, Koenning Begin Rebuilding
The Clemson football team got its first look at the team's new coordinators, Rob Spence (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense), on March 11.
Toledo (Spence) and Troy (Koenning) aren't exactly a pair of Division I-A powerhouses, but Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said he isn't worried about his new coordinators' ability to adjust to the ACC.
"They are both proven and experienced guys at the I-A level, so I don't have any reservations in that regard at all," Bowden said. "They both have track records."
The early word is that both Spence and Koenning are going to inject some intensity into the Tigers.
At Toledo, Spence directed an offense that averaged 35 points and 475 yards per game. Known as "The Mad Scientist," he faces the difficult task of rebuilding Clemson's offensive confidence, something the Tigers have struggled with since Rich Rodriguez left for West Virginia in 2001.
Spence's job starts with senior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who did not have the type of season everyone was expecting in 2004. There is some concern, because Spence will be Whitehurst's third offensive coordinator in three years. Some insiders wonder if Whitehurst can make another quick turn. Spence has said he is excited to have a veteran quarterback to work with in his first year, and Bowden believes Whitehurst will make the necessary adjustments.
"Charlie is a pretty level-headed and constant guy," Bowden said. "I would be disappointed if he doesn't have a pretty productive year."
If Spence is going to have any success in his first season at Clemson, he's going to have to find some receivers. The name at the top of most lists is Kelvin Grant, who Bowden says is now getting the job done in the classroom. The next task for Grant is to learn to make the tough catches on a consistent basis.
Bowden has promised to try to keep his hands off the offense. He says he will make suggestions but that Spence is in charge.
Koenning's No. 1 job is to increase the number of turnovers gained. His defenses at Troy were known for their ability to jar the ball loose. He must shore up a defense that will be missing its two best players from last season, linebacker Leroy Hill and cornerback Justin Miller.
Not surprisingly, Bowden's goals for the spring are rather generic finding the best 11 players on both sides of the ball, identifying team leaders, and helping the players grasp the new offensive and defensive concepts.