By Ken Tysiac
Columbia (S.C.) State
November 17, 2003 CLEMSON Chey Christie gazed out at the basketball court and smiled. Practice had been over for five minutes, but none of Clemson's players had left the floor. I feel like it's a new attitude, Christie said. It seems like everybody has got confidence. Everybody is still shooting. Practice is over, and everybody is still shooting.
First-year coach Oliver Purnell has developed and nurtured that attitude after taking over for Larry Shyatt following the conclusion of the 2002-03 season. The Tigers haven't played a game yet under Purnell, but the difference is obvious to the players.
If they screwed up during practice under Shyatt, they would be forced to run the length of the floor twice. Purnell disciplines the Tigers by making them run the width of the court 17 times.
At first I thought he was kind of like a laid-back guy, Clemson junior Sharrod Ford said. But once we started practicing, we kind of got into it. He's loud sometimes and will cuss you out if you're not doing good, but it's all for the better.
It's a change that seemed necessary after Clemson went 70-84 in five seasons under Shyatt, including 15-13 last season. Players liked Shyatt because he was a genuinely nice guy, and Clemson administrators liked him so much that they paid him a $70,000 consulting fee in addition to his $180,000 buyout after he resigned.
But players said they weren't as disciplined under Shyatt. Forward Olu Babalola said Clemson's wings were instructed, but not commanded, to cross underneath the basket during the initiation of Shyatt's halfcourt offense. Because Shyatt didn't demand it, though, the crossing rarely happened.
This year, it's part of our offense, Babalola said. It has to be done. It's hard, because you'll be tired, but it's something you have to do. Discipline, that's something we didn't have last year that's a key.
Purnell has said he was fortunate to inherit a group of players with solid character, though, and now he is moving forward with a rebuilding process that is nothing new for him. Purnell turned losing programs into winners at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton and is attempting to do the same at Clemson.
Post players Chris Hobbs and Ford will be the early focal points of Purnell's rebuilding, as the new coach plans to pound the ball inside at every opportunity. Hobbs, the team's only senior on scholarship, has demonstrated on occasion the ability to score big in the post, with 25 points each at Duke and Georgia Tech in 2001-02. Ford shot 56.4 percent from the field last season and is an athletic power forward who gets down the floor in a hurry. He improved his jump shot and hook shot in the offseason and has merited more frequent scoring opportunities along with Hobbs.
Watching those guys on tape and watching them work out, they can do something in the post when they get the ball, Purnell said. Any time you have a low-post presence, it gives you something to go around or go through offensively.
The Tigers lost a huge portion of their offense with the departure of 2002-03 senior Edward Scott, who averaged 17.7 points and 5.8 assists per game. Clemson doesn't have a player who is as talented with the ball as Scott to compensate for the loss. But the Tigers have four returning starters in Hobbs and juniors Ford, Christie and Babalola who believe they can be successful if they commit to playing defense.
Purnell said defense and rebounding will be his top priorities, and there is plenty of work to do on defense. The Tigers ranked eighth in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage defense in conference games last season.
Watching tape of the Dayton teams of the past, they didn't have any big-name players, Babalola said. But they won big games, and you can see it's because of their defensive pressure and how they play defense and how they play help defense, off-the-ball defense and on-the-ball defense.
Christie, who averaged 11.5 points per game last season, gives Clemson a proven (though streaky) scorer at shooting guard. He said he improved his jump shot during the offseason and added strength that should help him finish around the basket on drives.
The point guard position will be the big question mark. Freshman Vernon Hamilton is an excellent athlete and a decent ball-handler, but he doesn't appear to be much of a scoring threat. Shawan Robinson was a good shooter (28-for-59 on three-point attempts) last season as Scott's backup, but he's a sophomore who didn't play many minutes at the point. He likely will back up Hamilton and Christie, as the Tigers use three players at the two backcourt positions.
Purnell said he will be happy if his point guard can just defend well, get the ball up the floor and get the Tigers into their offense.
We're not going to rely upon our point guard to do as much as Ed Scott did, Purnell said. That kid was a first-team All-ACC player. If you watch Clemson on tape last year, he dominated the basketball. We don't want that role for our point guard, and mainly because of experience.
The early reviews of Purnell have been favorable. He has secured commitments from three players (6-5 Cheyenne Moore, 6-8 James Mays and 6-6 Sam Perry) who are ranked in the nation's top 100 by at least one recruiting service.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said Purnell has worked hard in recruiting, gets along well with the staff and knows how to build a program. But Phillips also sounded a cautionary note when asked about his expectations for Purnell's first season.
I'm a realist when it comes to building a program, Phillips said. This is not just a one-season deal in basketball. It's going to be a building process. It takes a period of time to build a program. So I try not to get too high or too low.
Purnell said his goal is only to get better every day, but Clemson's players are less guarded. They watch tape of Dayton and admire Purnell's gritty teams there. They don't have the talent of Duke or North Carolina, but they hope they can compete with defense and discipline. They are staying after practice to shoot and don't mind doing extra running when they make mistakes in practice.
After appearing in three straight ACC Tournament play-in games, the Tigers are excited to see how their new attitude benefits them on the court.
I just can't wait, Babalola said. I can't wait at all. I can't wait for games. I can't wait for ACC season. It's crazy.