February 7, 2006
CLEMSON -- Heading into a home game against N.C. State, Clemson's basketball team was enveloped with optimism.
With a 14-5 record, a 3-3 mark in ACC play and a manageable closing stretch, this bunch was seriously and realistically talking NCAA Tournament. Five wins in their last 10 games would have meant an 8-8 record, and the idea of that kind of run seemed legitimate, given the conference's reduced stature.
A week and three straight losses later, all of that hot air had been squeezed from the Tigers' balloon. And coach Oliver Purnell's patience with his team's putrid shooting went out the window with the NCAA talk.
The Tigers gave away the game against the Wolfpack because they couldn't hit free throws. They lost at Florida State because they couldn't hit from anywhere. It was the same story at North Carolina, where Clemson missed 14 of 18 shots from three-point range while falling to 0-for-52 in Chapel Hill.
Now Clemson seems destined for a second trip to the NIT in as many years. That's not an embarrassing prospect, given the school's meager basketball history and the December loss of starting forward James Mays (academics), but it's easy for the Tigers to wonder where they'd be if they were merely decent shooters.
Take a wild guess where Clemson's most crucial mistakes have occurred. Shocker of all shockers, it's come from the free throw line, where the Tigers are frequently nothing short of brutal.
With 9.9 seconds left in regulation against N.C. State, guard Cliff Hammonds had a chance to put the Wolfpack away. But with a two-point lead, he missed one of two free throws, and N.C. State forced overtime on a three-pointer.
The Tigers had another chance to create a cushion with 26.2 seconds left in the first overtime. Forward Sam Perry missed both free throws, and Clemson didn't increase its one-point lead. N.C. State forced another overtime and won 94-85.
The free throw frustration was etched on Purnell's face after the game, when he seemed as exasperated as ever when asked for a solution. He tried to focus more on free throws during the offseason, in an attempt to correct last year's awful percentage (60.1), but the problem is worse in Purnell's third season.
How bad are the Tigers from the line? Consider this: They rank 324th out of 326 Division I teams at 58 percent. The only teams worse were Stony Brook (57.9) and Prairie View A&M (57.3). In ACC play, starting point guard Vernon Hamilton was shooting better from the field than from the free throw line. Take away senior Shawan Robinson, who was shooting 92.7 percent from the charity stripe, and everyone else was shooting 52 percent. To put that in perspective, Duke is shooting 51 percent from the field this season.
Of course, this isn't a new problem at Clemson. In the past 20 years, the Tigers have finished the season with the ACC's worst free throw percentage 11 times. And barring a stunning reversal, they'll make it 12 out of 21 this year. No one else is even close.
So what's the answer? First of all, it's not good when your best free throw shooter can't get to the line. Robinson is on pace to break the school record for free throw percentage in a season, but he's shooting less than 13 percent of the team's free throws.
"Obviously, he's not the problem," Purnell said. "It's who goes to the line. If we had Shawan Robinson going to the line 90 percent of the time, we'd be fine."
The Tigers also could benefit from getting more touches for freshman wing K.C. Rivers, who is the team's most talented player. Rivers still hasn't completely adjusted to the college game, but he's not sufficiently involved for someone who's averaging 24 minutes. Rivers was 13-of-16 on free throws, so maybe he should be given the ball more so he can get to the line more.
Free throws aren't the Tigers' only problem. This team usually plays superb defense, but that didn't happen when it allowed N.C. State to hit a season-high 15 three-pointers in a defensive effort Purnell termed "inexcusable."
Speaking of three-pointers, Purnell's team can't hit any. The Tigers took 209 and made just 54 in their first nine conference games, for an abysmal 25.8 percentage.
Hammonds wasn't much help, going 8-of-46 from downtown (17.3 percent). And Robinson, for his pinpoint precision from the free throw line, was 12-for-49 from three-point range in ACC play. It's never good when your top three guards (Hamilton, Hammonds, Robinson) are shooting 25 percent on threes against conference teams.
Those just aren't the numbers of an NCAA Tournament team.
RECRUITING AGAIN BOLSTERS BOWDEN
Late on the afternoon of national signing day, a group of Clemson's football coaches left the office and gathered at a storied Clemson watering hole to toast coach Tommy Bowden's eighth recruiting class.
There was plenty for them to celebrate at The Esso Club, which sits in the shadow of Death Valley. The Tigers didn't just sign tailback C.J. Spiller, the top prospect in Florida. And they didn't just sign a class that was probably Bowden's most talented and deepest.
Clemson's staff sent a resounding message that the Tigers, who not long ago were playing catch-up in the middle of the ACC pack against N.C. State, Virginia, Maryland and Georgia Tech, have re-established themselves as a major recruiting player.
It's amazing how quickly fortunes and perceptions can change. Late in 2003, Bowden's job was in jeopardy, and his assistants were just trying to hold everything together on the recruiting trail. Clemson was falling behind ACC programs that boasted better facilities and presumably better recruiting classes.
A little more than two years later, those other teams are trying to close the gap with the Tigers. Three consecutive impressive recruiting classes have Clemson fans thinking division title and BCS bid.
Improved facilities have been a major factor. Construction of the new West End Zone facility at Death Valley has coincided with the signings of more decorated recruits. And that's no coincidence.
Clemson also has been boosted by high-profile victories against Florida State (twice in three years), Tennessee, Miami and Texas A&M. Each of those wins was on national television.
But the most important ingredient is the coaches' ability to close with recruits. Assistants Dabo Swinney and David Blackwell have been rousing successes in their three years at Clemson. The Tigers are starting to own rival South Carolina inside the Palmetto State, primarily because Blackwell, Brad Scott and Burton Burns have cultivated solid and fruitful relationships with the state's high school coaches. Bowden also has to be given credit for making recruiting the utmost priority by getting rid of coaches who didn't deliver.
Now, sparked by two consensus five-star signees in Spiller and in-state defensive end Ricky Sapp, Bowden has a class that tends to make people notice. You just don't go into Florida and nab the No. 1 player (Spiller) and the No. 10 player (defensive back DeAndre McDaniel) quietly.
Bowden and his staff genuinely believe they've turned a corner, and it's hard to disagree. Perhaps for the first time since the coach's 1999 arrival from Tulane, the Tigers have the look of a team that's on the verge of something special.