December 15, 2003 CLEMSON When Oliver Purnell agreed to leave the solid program he had built at Dayton to take over the mess he inherited at Clemson, he knew he had a big job in front of him. In the first three weeks of the season, Purnell learned that turning around the Tigers is going to be an even bigger job than he anticipated. This is going to take some time, folks. You might want to check back in another year, or maybe two.
Quite frankly, this is a team that needs to learn how to play the game. Purnell is trying to give his players a cram course, but marginal talent and deeply ingrained bad habits will keep the Tigers in their customary position in or near the ACC cellar this season. Better talent is on the way, but it's not going to get here until next season.
We're not where we need to be mentally, said Purnell, after watching the Tigers get dismantled by South Carolina 76-61 at home on Dec. 6. It's certainly mental in terms of knowing how to win and learning how to win against a very good basketball team.
There was a ray of hope after the two exhibition games, but the situation quickly started to deteriorate. The Tigers were dreadful in their loss to South Carolina. Clemson suffered 27 turnovers and shot 39 percent against the Gamecocks. Just how bad was the Tigers' shooting? They grabbed 15 offensive rebounds against USC and still managed to shoot just 39 percent.
A lot of (the turnovers) was us, Purnell said. We told our guys we had to go side to side to get the ball inside. They were going to have their defense stacked and ready to double on the post. The first time we got it to the wing, we stood there, threw it in there and turned it over. Eight of our turnovers were baseline drives or early post entry passes. Those are two things we told them we could not do.
The unemotional crowd of 9,000 sat in stunned silence as South Carolina took over the game in the second half. It was an embarrassing turnout, especially considering that it was Purnell's first big game at home and that the Tigers were 7-0 in athletic events against USC this season. Clemson tried to pump the ticket sales late by announcing two presentations at halftime the Hardee's Trophy (given to the winner of the Clemson-South Carolina football game) and the ACC coach of the year award (for Tommy Bowden). But even a football-related halftime activity, which is usually sufficient to create a sellout, wasn't enough to fill every seat for the game.
To Purnell's credit, he didn't rip the pitiful crowd. He knows the Clemson fans who have any interest in basketball aren't going to buy in until there's more success on the floor.
I was juiced up about the game, but I didn't feel like we were tough enough down the stretch, Purnell said. It's going to get better around here. We've got to give them more things to be excited about. It will get wilder in here, but we have to play better.
Purnell also questioned his team's effort against South Carolina.
At nut-cutting time, we allowed them to shoot a couple of threes that just weren't contested with energy, he said. I'm very disappointed in our defense and our rebounding down the stretch. I'm disappointed in our second-half play and effort.
Hamstrung At Guard Positions
Good basketball begins with good guards, and Clemson doesn't have any good guards. The Tigers have several one-dimensional guards, and that's not enough in the ACC.
You have to get good guard play in order to be successful consistently, Purnell said. In most of these types of games, your guards have to play well to win. We were kind of helter skelter (against South Carolina).
The point guard position remains a work in progress. Vernon Hamilton, a true freshman, is learning something new every time he plays. Sophomore Shawan Robinson can hit an occasional jump shot, but he needs to learn how to handle the ball better.
Taking care of the ball is something the entire Clemson team needs to learn how to do. Through six games, the Tigers averaged nearly 20 turnovers per game. That's too many wasted possessions for a team that can't afford them because of its poor shooting.
The player who needs the most work on his ball-control skills is forward Olu Babalola. Purnell may be trying to reel in Babalola, but it doesn't look as if the hook has been set yet. Babalola is one of the best all-around athletes on the team, but he's struggling. He's trying to do too much, and the result is a rash of mistakes. At least three or four times a game, Babalola tries to throw some sort of fancy pass that results in a turnover.
Meanwhile, the Chris Hobbs who had put foul trouble behind him has disappeared. The bigger the game, the quicker Hobbs picks up fouls. He took just two shots and was scoreless in Clemson's loss to Georgia on Dec. 13. Clemson is going nowhere if Hobbs, a sturdy senior center, gets only two shots a game.
The same is true of junior forward Sharrod Ford, who got just four shots against Georgia. Purnell said in the preseason that he was going to play inside-out. Inside is the strength of this team, but the inside players aren't producing.
In addition to the turnovers, two long-time problems have popped up: free throw shooting and perimeter shooting. The Tigers made just 11 of 22 from the line against Georgia. Fifty percent from the line won't get it done in the ACC. Chey Christie and Lamar Rice made three three-point goals apiece against the Bulldogs, but perimeter shooting is still a problem because there's no consistency. If Rice continues to shoot the way he did against Georgia, he'll get more playing time.
The scouting report on Clemson is simple: Pressure the ball and deny the entry pass. Zones also remain a problem, because of the lack of consistent outside shooting. Even High Point and Wofford gave Clemson fits by pressuring the ball.
Purnell doesn't have a lot of options. The Tigers tried to run more against Georgia because of the Bulldogs' lack of depth, but a faster pace means more opportunities for turnovers. Somehow, some way, Purnell must get the turnovers under control. He didn't seem too concerned about the miscues in the first two games, but he must be worried now.
Clemson's ACC schedule begins with Duke at home on Jan. 3. The Tigers will need to drastically improve between now and then just to make that game against the Blue Devils competitive.