By John Brasier
Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail
January 24, 2007
CLEMSON Clemson fooled just about everybody.
The ACC media picked the Tigers ninth out of 12 conference teams in its preseason poll. None of the most popular preseason magazines on the newsstand picked the Tigers in the upper division. Most picked them at or near the bottom.
Nobody knew how good the Tigers would be in 2006-07. Nobody figured they'd open the season 17-0 and ranked in the national top 20, with two quick road victories in ACC play.
But who could be expected to know? We're talking about Clemson, which has had nine straight losing records in conference play. We're talking about Clemson, a charter member of the conference that has never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill nor won the ACC Tournament. Never.
OK, maybe Oliver Purnell. The Clemson coach, who watched his team start 11-0 last year before standout forward James Mays was placed on academic suspension for unspecified reasons, said he expected the Tigers to beat most preseason predictions. But he admitted that he didn't expect to be coaching the nation's last unbeaten team.
"I didn't know we'd be 17-0," Purnell said. "We had a chance to be special last year before we lost James Mays. It was obvious to me we were going to be good. Other coaches and other people don't study our team like I do."
Though the Tigers finally stumbled with a loss at Maryland on Jan. 13, then suffered a second straight defeat at home against North Carolina, they've shown signs that they could be one of the ACC's best teams this season, winning over many doubters along the way.
Granted, a mediocre some call it soft non-conference schedule helped the Tigers stay unbeaten. But it also allowed players who hadn't experienced success at Clemson to gain needed confidence and momentum.
And though the Tigers didn't beat any Top 25 teams UNC was their first opponent in the Top 25 of both major polls they did win road games against Old Dominion, Minnesota, South Carolina, Florida State and N.C. State. They also beat Georgia and Georgia Tech in Clemson. Plus, they didn't have any of the demoralizing home losses (such as Elon last season) that have sapped their confidence and momentum entering ACC play in recent years.
So why are the Tigers so improved from last season's 19-13 team? Here are a few major reasons:
SOLID, EXPERIENCED GUARD PLAY.
Senior Vernon Hamilton, junior Cliff Hammonds and sophomore K.C. Rivers give the Tigers one of the best, most versatile trios of guards in the ACC.
Hamilton and Hammonds can do it all penetrate, pass, create their own shots, hit from three-point range and defend. Their stats are similar.
"They have great guards," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "I've always liked their guards."
The 6-0 Hamilton averaged 11.7 points and about four assists, three rebounds and two steals in the Tigers' first 19 games. The 6-3 Hammonds contributed 10.7 points with averages similar to Hamilton's in assists, rebounds, steals and three-point accuracy (about 35 percent). They each average about 30 minutes of court time per game, tops on the team.
The duo's quickness is the first obstacle for opponents in bringing the ball up court against the Tigers' full-court trapping defense. Both players also were football standouts in high school, and it's easy to see why.
Their experience on the hardcourt helped the Tigers pull out victories in opening ACC road games against FSU and N.C. State. In Tallahassee, Hamilton led the Tigers in scoring, and Hammonds hit the game-winning shot.
"We have experienced guards and swing players on the perimeter," Purnell said. "All of our guys, led by the backcourt, understand the importance of (critical) times in the game."
Hamilton and Hammonds were respected veterans entering the season. But until this year, they hadn't been able to get the Tigers over the hump at crunch time in league games.
"Our guards learned a lot from last year," Purnell said. "In most cases, with experienced guards, if it doesn't break your spirit, it makes you better. We talked about it a lot during the offseason. These guys feel like they've worked hard. They feel not only that they can win, but that they deserved to win."
THE RETURN OF JAMES MAYS.
Until the Tigers' loss at Maryland, Mays was 28-0 at Clemson. OK, so he didn't play in any ACC games last season. Still, there's no debate that the Tigers with Mays are much better than the Tigers without him.
On offense, the 6-9 junior gives the Tigers a tough inside player who can take the ball strong with decent shooting range. On defense, his quickness and jumping ability can frustrate opponents. He's also the Tigers' top rebounder, and he often plays as the pesky point man in the pressure defense.
"It's a big deal having James Mays back in our lineup," Purnell said. "We were playing well last year until we lost him. It took us a while to adjust to not having him."
Mays' versatility is seen in the stats. He's averaged more than 13 points and seven rebounds this season, while leading the Tigers with 43 steals and adding 22 blocks. With freshman center Trevor Booker also in the lineup, the Tigers have a powerful inside tandem that can score, defend, intimidate and rebound.
Mays also has made clutch plays at crunch time, including a powerful drive from half court for the game-winning basket against Georgia Tech.
"We have a lot of confidence in (Mays)," Hammonds said. "Having a big man in there helps the team in so many ways. We never recovered when we lost him last season."
RELIABLE DEPTH PERCEPTION.
The Tigers have nine quality players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. The depth allows Clemson to play non-stop, full-court pressure defense.
Clemson's depth has worn down several opponents, including SEC foes South Carolina and Georgia, plus N.C. State.
"The way it seems now, you have to have depth," said N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe, whose six-man rotation was no match for the Tigers in Raleigh.
Clemson's top four reserves Rivers, swingman David Potter, Raymond Sykes and Julius Powell aren't just fill-ins providing a few breathers for the starters. They each make valuable contributions.
Rivers is the Tigers' leading scorer and best three-point shooter. Powell, Potter and Sykes are athletic forwards, tough on defense and on the boards.
"The maturation of K.C. Rivers has been a big deal coming off the bench," Purnell said. "He's accepted his role and been a great team player."
ATHLETICISM AND CHEMISTRY.
The Tigers have great athleticism and chemistry. Look no further for proof than the Jan. 17 loss to North Carolina.
Despite losing 77-55, the Tigers made 20 steals (a school record in ACC play), grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and blocked 12 shots. Though the Tar Heels broke the Tigers' press for several easy baskets, they also committed 22 turnovers and scrambled to keep possession on several other trips up the court.
The Tigers have nearly doubled opponents in blocks and steals, while owning edges of six rebounds and five turnovers per game over their foes. Booker averages two blocks per game off the bench. Mays and Sykes average more than one per game. Mays, Hamilton and Hammonds are among the league leaders in steals.
The Tigers' top nine are all athletic. Each is a solid man-to-man defender. Though the guards are small, they harass opponents with their quickness.
"They were 17-0 for a reason," UNC's Williams said. "They are extremely athletic, and they have great quickness."
Teams that break the Clemson backcourt trap must not be content to set up in the half-court offense. The Tigers' quickness allows them to contest most shots and deny the ball to opposing stars.
Clemson's lack of a dominant star has been good for chemistry on a team that rotates players constantly and plays a full-court press. Mays, Rivers and Hamilton have sacrificed stats for the good of the team. The unselfishness starts with Hamilton and Hammonds, the team's unofficial leaders. They set the tone in practice and distribute the ball the first option is to Mays inside during games. When Rivers comes into the game, they try to get him the ball.
"If I could put a finger on one strength," Purnell said, "it would be our understanding of the importance of team and chemistry."
PURNELL CAN REBUILD THEM.
Purnell knows how to rebuild a program.
The Clemson coach has done it before at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton, before coming to Clemson in 2003 to take over a program with three straight last-place finishes in the ACC.
A former player then assistant coach at Old Dominion, Purnell served as an assistant to Lefty Driesell at Maryland before taking over at Radford, where he won 22 games in his third and last season. He took Old Dominion and Dayton to the NCAA Tournament.
"This is the fourth program we've been able to be involved with on a turnaround basis, so it's not like I haven't been there before," Purnell said. "I'm just trying to draw on those experiences."
From the beginning at Clemson, he's fortified the Tigers' talent level. Hamilton was an important cog he signed soon after taking over. The talent flow keeps coming. Booker, last year's high school player of the year in South Carolina, is the latest strong addition.
This may be Clemson's most talented team since the Elden Campbell and Dale Davis teams of the late 1980s under Cliff Ellis. As much as Rick Barnes' three NCAA Tournament teams accomplished, they relied heavily on stars Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre for enough offense to complement their grind-it-out style.
Purnell's ability to recruit talented players and his full-court style have helped excite Clemson fans about basketball. Despite the loss to Maryland, more than 100 tents were propped up near Littlejohn Coliseum by students trying to get tickets for the UNC game. It wasn't Krzyzewskiville, but it was as close as Clemson had come to it in a decade.
Though Purnell did not lead the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament in his first three years, the Tigers have made consistent progress, gradually improving each season, from 10 victories in 2003-04 to 19 last year.
REASONABLE SCHEDULE APPROACH.
For his fourth season, Purnell put together a schedule that allowed the Tigers to gain confidence and build momentum with a few small challenges along the way. It was a gamble that still could hurt the Tigers' NCAA at-large standing, but it likely will prove to be worth the risk.
Clemson was assigned Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Gophers, who were in disarray, fired their coach after losing to the Tigers in Minneapolis. Then it was on to Mississippi State, before the Tigers' took their turn on the road against South Carolina, which is off to a terrible start in SEC play. Then the Tigers played host to rebuilding Georgia.
The schedule included five opponents from the Southern Conference and none from the Top 25.
But the 17-0 start boosted the Tigers' confidence, as well as their status. Clemson gained experience dealing with the media and fan attention.
"I think it did really help from the standpoint of the specialness of things that have happened," Purnell said. "That was kind of the first special thing we had a chance to get used to and talk about, what makes it so special for us."
BEATABLE CONFERENCE OPPONENTS.
The ACC has no unbeatable teams this season. Clemson hasn't been and won't be completely overmatched by anyone.
Duke is young and vulnerable. The Blue Devils lost at home to Virginia Tech. Ditto for North Carolina, also a loser to the Hokies, who lost to four mid-majors in non-conference games.
Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest also are down from the high levels they enjoyed at various times over the last decade. Carolina starts two freshmen at guard. Sophomore Tyler Hansbrough is the team's linchpin, and he may leave for the NBA at the end of the season.
The timing is ripe for Clemson, much like it was for Wake Forest in football this season.
Even Duke and UNC don't get many four-year stars anymore. The NBA takes them early, a pattern that allows teams such as Clemson with good but not quite NBA-ready talent to win with veteran players while the powers must rebuild with freshmen.
Plus, the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech preceded by Florida State have helped dilute the power of the nation's most celebrated basketball conference. Clemson plays UNC, for example, only once per season.
PLENTY OF CHALLENGES AHEAD.
"We're not great at anything," Purnell said, "but we're pretty good at everything."
Well, except foul shooting. A 5-for-19 performance against UNC dropped the Tigers to 58.5 percent for the season. A 5-for-13 effort at Maryland was a big reason the Tigers lost that game.
But with their full-court pressure defense and athleticism, the Tigers shouldn't have to rely on good foul shooting more than a few times per season.
Considering the returning talent, the non-conference schedule and Purnell's rebuilding track record, perhaps Clemson's fast start shouldn't have been such a big surprise, generating attention and guest appearances for Purnell on national media outlets.
With a versatile, veteran backcourt, a talented group of forwards and four solid reserves, the Tigers have what it takes to compete possibly even for an ACC title while perennial contenders Duke and UNC suffer some growing pains with freshman starters.
Despite an attractive renovation of Littlejohn and the arrival of Purnell, a proven winner, Clemson still fights the perception of being a rural football-school stepchild in the nation's blue-blooded, genteel basketball conference.
Purnell is knocking down some of those barriers. Fans are coming back to Littlejohn. But he's years away from competing with UNC and Duke for top national recruits. Nor does he have the rich home turf enjoyed in recruiting by Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia.
Much like he did at Old Dominion and Dayton, Purnell must make the best of recruits passed over by the nation's top programs. He must find sleepers and overachievers, then develop them. He's done that already.
Hamilton and Hammonds are good college players, but their size and mediocre shooting make them unlikely NBA players. The Tigers' front-line regulars lack the shooting range and size to be blue-chip pro prospects.
The Tigers have a healthy handful of good players, including several veterans. That's their best recipe for success against the old guard of the ACC and their national recruits.
What about what's left of this season? Is Clemson a contender or a pretender? Were the Tigers exposed by Maryland and UNC, which busted their traps to shoot 63 and 53 percent, respectively?
That's a tough call. Judging by their first five conference games, Clemson likely will have several more close calls down the stretch. Seven victories that's just four more in the conference may be the minimum needed for the Tigers to make the NCAA Tournament. Some see 8-8 as the magical mark.
Purnell, of course, is setting his sights higher. The best window of opportunity will open in late January, when the Tigers start a four-game stretch against Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest.
It won't be easy. The Tigers' 17-0 start got opponents' attention. They won't be able to sneak up on anyone anymore.
Clemson is pretty good, and the rest of the ACC knows it. The doubts expressed in preseason polls and magazines are gone. Purnell's secret is out. Nobody's fooled anymore. With nine solid players, the Tigers are competitive with the best teams in the conference.
In basketball, especially, that's very big news.
John Brasier is the sports editor of the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. His columns can be found at IndependentMail.com.
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