March 7, 2006
CLEMSON -- With less than four minutes left and his team down by seven points last week at Virginia Tech, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell lit into the Tigers during the final television timeout.
What he said -- or, more precisely, what he yelled -- is probably not suitable for publication. The watered-down version: Clemson was not playing hard enough or tough enough.
"He said this wasn't the team he's been coaching all year," junior point guard Vernon Hamilton said. "He said, We need to do some soul-searching and stop these guys.'"
What happened next was a microcosm of the second half of the Tigers' season. Just when it seemed that their only option was to give in, they responded by peeling themselves off the mat and fighting harder and tougher.
Clemson dug deep with a 14-2 run to close the game in Blacksburg, winning 86-81. The Tigers continued their flourish with a 95-82 pounding of Georgia Tech in their regular-season finale.
This is a team whose NCAA Tournament hopes were written off by almost everyone after a supposedly shattering overtime defeat at Wake Forest on Feb. 22. But the Tigers, 18-11 overall and 7-9 in the ACC, aren't settling for the NIT just yet.
They closed the season with four wins in five games, and they're confident that two victories in the ACC Tournament (they'd play Duke in the quarterfinals) would put them in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years.
"We're playing so well and so hard, and we're so confident right now," Hamilton said. "A lot of people started to count us out and not believe in us, but we're turning heads right now and we're really beginning to get noticed."
There's no mystery surrounding Clemson's turnaround: The Tigers finally are shooting the ball well from outside.
After the departure of star center Sharrod Ford, Purnell came into this season knowing that his third team could toss up three-pointers at a record clip. The Tigers have averaged 23.2 attempts per game, their most since the three-point line was installed in 1986-87.
But jacking up so many bombs means little if most of them don't go in. On Feb. 8, heading into a home game against Virginia Tech, Clemson had hit just 54 shots in 209 attempts, for a dreadful 25.8 percentage, through its first nine ACC games.
In their final seven games, the Tigers went 66-of-161 (40.9 percent). Senior wing guard Shawan Robinson, the player on whom Purnell's switch to a perimeter-oriented approach was most predicated, sparked the long-range turnaround.
Before a Feb. 14 home game against Maryland, Robinson's senior season was being written off as a failure. His reputation as a three-point threat had taken a huge hit because, over a 15-game stretch, he had made just 18 of 80 tries on three-pointers for a depressing 22.5 percentage.
Now Robinson is as hot as anyone heading into the ACC Tournament. He's gone 22-of-43 on three-pointers (51 percent) in his past five games, and his abundant confidence has been demonstrated by his willingness to heave bombs from far beyond the arc.
Robinson's last two games were a reflection of his season. In the first half against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, he scored a total of three points. After halftime in those games, he totaled 36 points and was 10-of-14 on three-pointers.
"He can struggle early and start making shots," Hamilton said. "The same thing happened at Virginia Tech. He picked up in the second half and was huge for us. He's such a great shooter and great player that if you lose sight of him for one second, he'll knock three points down."
Another key element in the shooting improvement has been a surge by Akin Akingbala in the post. Widely deemed the team's weakness coming into the season, Akingbala has made a strong case for third-team All-ACC.
Who would have imagined Akingbala, who averaged less than five points and four rebounds per game over his first three years, bagging five double-doubles in his final eight games? Who would have pictured a career-high 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10-of-14 shooting in the regular-season finale?
Purnell said there's been a direct correlation between Akingbala's enhanced post presence and the Tigers' scorching shooting. Going into the season, Purnell's emphasis on the perimeter was at least in part a result of his expectation that Akingbala wouldn't draw much attention. Now defenses are sagging on the post and allowing the guards some room to shoot.
"Now people are obviously game-planning to stop Akin," Purnell said. "He's seeing two and three guys down there. Guys are getting wide-open looks as a result, particularly as the game goes along."
TIGERS FAILED TOP-50 OPPORTUNITIES
It was easy to get caught up in the NCAA optimism after Clemson closed the regular season on such a resounding note. Purnell and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt both said the Tigers would be in as an at-large team with two ACC Tournament wins, and some Palmetto State media members started to buy into the notion as well.
But a look at the numbers suggests that Clemson still would be a longshot unless it advances to Sunday's conference championship game.
The Tigers are No. 69 in the latest RPI ratings. A win over Duke on a neutral court in the quarterfinals would improve their numbers, but probably not the 20 or so necessary spots.
Clemson is 0-4 against teams ranked in the Top 50 of the RPI. The Tigers' most noteworthy victory is over a Maryland team that might be headed for the NIT for the second consecutive season. A double-overtime home loss to N.C. State on Jan. 29 is still haunting this team, because the Wolfpack is ranked No. 39 in the RPI.
The Tigers are 5-4 against teams rated between No. 50 and 100 in the RPI, and they also have four losses (Elon, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech twice) to teams rated 100 or lower.
And remember that, in Clemson's case, it's not exactly wise to bank on a trip to the ACC semifinals. The Tigers have won more than once in the tournament just one time (1962), and they've lost to Duke 19 consecutive times.
In other words, a second consecutive trip to the NIT appears likely. But don't expect the Tigers to concede that until the last of the 65 NCAA teams is revealed Sunday evening.
"If we win that first game," Purnell said, "we can make magic happen."