By Scott Keepfer
Greenville (S.C.) News
November 22, 2005
CLEMSON -- For the Clemson Tigers, the upcoming season is all about upward mobility.
Indeed, "moving up" was the battle cry for third-year coach Oliver Purnell throughout the offseason. For the first time in quite a while, the Tigers' chances of accomplishing just that appear to be more realistic than idealistic.
Purnell cited the many "positive experiences" notched by last year's team -- the first Clemson squad to advance to postseason play in the 21st century -- as the primary impetus for high hopes in 2005-06.
"I'm optimistic about our ability to move up in the ACC," Purnell said. "A reasonable goal is for us to improve."
It's possible. Consider:
Clemson finished 16-16 last year, the greatest one-season improvement (six games) for the Tigers since the 1986-87 campaign. They went 4-4 in the second half of their ACC schedule and defeated Maryland three times in a season for the first time. They finished with a flourish, posting consecutive late-season victories over Maryland, Florida State and Virginia Tech, then advanced to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, beating the Terrapins again and taking North Carolina to the wire before losing 88-81.
"I think our players go into this season not fearing anybody," Purnell said. "The last month of last season is something our guys look to for confidence. We could've beaten North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, and they went on to win the national championship."
Such achievements might be taken for granted at Duke or other upper-echelon ACC schools. But for a Clemson program with aspirations of breathing the same rarified air, they are the basis for excitement.
"Obviously, our goal is postseason play, with an eye on the NCAA Tournament," said Purnell, whose team lost to Texas A&M in the first round of the NIT last season. "I know the ACC is tough, but we've lost some people in the league (to the NBA draft), and I know that we can be better. My suspicion is that the league is not going to be as good as it was last year, but pretty close. I think you're going to see two or three teams emerge from that middle group, much like two years ago."
If the Tigers are to emerge, they likely will do so with a strong contingent of perimeter players leading the way. Strong guard play was evident throughout Clemson's preseason workouts, and it was particularly obvious in the Tigers' lone exhibition game, a 101-59 win over Johnson C. Smith. Guards Shawan Robinson, Cliff Hammonds and K.C. Rivers combined to score more than half of Clemson's points.
Robinson, a senior, is the team's most experienced player. He really showcased his abilities in the Tigers' two ACC Tournament games last year, scoring 41 points and hitting a gaudy nine of 12 three-point shots en route to second-team all-tournament honors. His 10.8 scoring average is the best among Clemson's returning players.
"We're looking for Shawan to have a career-best year for us," Purnell said.
Hammonds started 31 games last season, the most ever by a Clemson freshman, and justifiably so. He averaged 10.6 points, scored 26 in the NIT loss at A&M and was named to the ACC's all-rookie team. Junior Vernon Hamilton started 19 games last season, averaged 6.8 points and led the team with 68 steals, third-best in the league. He also was second on the team with 92 assists. One common lineup for the Tigers this season will have Hamilton at point guard and Hammonds at shooting guard.
Purnell also hopes to work redshirt freshman Troy Mathis into the mix, although Mathis (suspended last season by the university for disciplinary reasons) wasn't up to full speed in the Tigers' preseason workouts after undergoing knee surgery last spring. Originally projected as a point guard, Mathis now is expected to play more at wing guard. Rivers, a highly touted freshman, displayed his versatility and a smooth shooting stroke in the preseason. In the team's Nov. 5 exhibition victory, he scored 19 points and made four of his seven three-point attempts.
"We will be much more perimeter-oriented offensively," Purnell said. That could translate into an offense featuring three guards -- or more. "You might even see four guards. I think we're going to have some funky lineups."
Those funky lineups are bound to include Sam Perry, a 6-5 sophomore who can play on the wing or bang and block inside with equal aplomb. Also Clemson's best defensive player, he started the final 12 games of last season during the Tigers' run to the NIT.
"Sam is an exciting player who is a gifted athlete," Purnell said. "No one on our team is any tougher than Sam. He plays with emotion and exuberance."
Perry and fellow sophomore James Mays earned the nickname the "Energy Brothers" last season with their frenetic play off the bench. Mays, who at 6-9 is more of a power forward, played well in spurts last season. He became just the second freshman in school history to have at least 20 blocks and 30 steals in a season.
Purnell will compensate for the loss of All-ACC center Sharrod Ford by unveiling what he terms his "three-headed monster," big men Akin Akingbala, Steve Allen and Raymond Sykes. Akingbala, a 6-9 senior, must improve his stamina. He'll be asked to play considerably more than the 13 minutes per game he averaged against ACC foes last year.
"People will play us differently without Sharrod Ford in the post," Purnell said. "But if we have to replace him by committee, that's fine. We've just got to get some production there."
Purnell said he's always stressed "gang rebounding," and that certainly will have to be the Tigers' approach this season. The team appears to have taken the concept to heart, as nine players grabbed at least three rebounds in the exhibition game.
Whatever the combinations, Clemson likely will be fast-paced, high-pressure and unafraid to use its bench.
"We need to generate more offense from our defense," Purnell said. "The way I see us playing -- more pressing and running -- you've got to be deeper, so I think you've got to play 10 guys. We have enough quality players to do that."
Also imperative to the Tigers' success will be improvement at the free throw line. Clemson turned each trip to the charity stripe into an adventure last season, converting an ACC-worst 60.1 percent.
The Tigers did manage to get a scheduling break. They play preseason favorite Duke only once, and that game is set for Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum on Jan. 14. The early schedule isn't particularly daunting, with a trip to Penn State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a home game against rival South Carolina and possible matchups with 2005 NCAA Tournament participants Mississippi State and Chattanooga in the San Juan Shootout looming as the biggest possible stumbling blocks.
Purnell said the Tigers shouldn't be intimidated by anyone.
"We've got some experienced guys back, and they really don't fear anyone," Purnell said. "We're still a work in progress, but because of our experiences last year, we have a lot of cause for optimism. We played as well as anybody in the league the last month of the season, and that's encouraging. I think the key is to get back to that level of play as quickly as we possibly can -- hopefully, at the beginning of the year."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 7-9 (6) 18-11 NCAA 1st Round
1997 9-7 (4) 23-10 NCAA Sweet 16
1998 7-9 (4) 18-14 NCAA 1st Round
1999 5-11 (7) 19-14 NIT Runner-up
2000 4-12 (9) 10-20 None
2001 2-14 (9) 12-19 None
2002 4-12 (7) 13-17 None
2003 5-11 (8) 15-13 None
2004 3-13 (9) 10-18 None
2005 5-11 (9) 16-16 NIT 1st Round
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Akin Akingbala 6-9/220 C Sr.
Steve Allen 6-10/230 C Sr.
Shawan Robinson* 6-2/183 WG Sr.
Vernon Hamilton* 6-0/192 PG Jr.
Cliff Hammonds* 6-3/175 WG So.
James Mays 6-9/215 BF So.
Sam Perry 6-5/190 WF So.
Troy Mathis 6-0/200 PG Fr.
Julius Powell 6-7/190 WF Fr.
K.C. Rivers 6-5/180 WG Fr.
Raymond Sykes 6-9/200 BF Fr.
* - returning starter
With the main building block (Sharrod Ford) lost to graduation, the Tigers must develop another inside presence to provide scoring and shotblocking. Coach Oliver Purnell said replacing Ford will be by committee. The leading candidate is Akin Akingbala, who added 15 pounds in the offseason and continues to develop his game. Akingbala won't be able to carry the Tigers as Ford did at times, but he can do more now than just take up space. Shawan Robinson, once an afterthought on the recruiting trail, has become a quality scorer. Last year he averaged 10.8 points per game and shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc. He again looked strong to open this season.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Cliff Hammonds had a solid freshman year, becoming the first player in Clemson history to be named the ACC rookie of the week four times in one season. He was third on the team in scoring at 10.6 points per game. Hammonds, who scored 26 against Texas A&M in the NIT, will have to score more this season. Vernon Hamilton made 68 steals last year, the second-highest total in school history and the most ever by a sophomore. Purnell's influence seems to be having a positive effect on the turnover-prone Hamilton, one of three Clemson players who had more assists than turnovers last season. Helping on the inside will be "The Energy Brothers," James Mays and Sam Perry. Mays is a 6-9 athlete who will have to take on a bigger role this season. Perry has only one gear: all-out. As last season progressed, Perry gradually learned how to play more under control. The Tigers will need more scoring and rebounding from both forwards this year.
Redshirt freshman Troy Mathis is off suspension after a season as the scout team's point guard, but he battled a knee problem into late November. He had surgery during the summer, but there has been some swelling. Mathis once scored 73 points in a single game in high school. K.C. Rivers, a top-100 recruit before breaking a foot prior to his senior season at Oak Hill Academy, could contribute a lot of scoring from the wing. Rivers, who made 15 three-point goals in one high school game, is the only player in Oak Hill history to play on two USA Today national championship teams. Julius Powell and Raymond Sykes are both in the mold of the 6-8/6-9 athletes Purnell likes to recruit, but neither is expected to play a major role this season.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
Last year's trip to the NIT was Clemson's first postseason appearance since 1998-99. ... In two seasons, Purnell definitely has made the Tigers tougher. Last season, Clemson played seven consecutive road games that were decided by nine points or less. That's the first time the Tigers went seven consecutive road games without a blowout loss since 1986-87. ... Clemson also had a winning February (4-3) for the first time since 1997-98. ... In the national rankings, the Tigers were eighth in steals and 20th in blocked shots. Clemson was the only school in the country to be ranked in the top 20 in both categories. ... Video screens have been added to the scoreboard at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Chart By: The Clemson Insider