Newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech could lift Clemson from the basement of the ACC. But in a league stacked with top-25 teams, second-year head coach Oliver Purnell will have a tough time getting the Tigers out of the league’s lower tier.
“Upset Special” was the name of the game for Clemson last season. The Tigers showed glimpses of their vast potential with home victories over ranked teams North Carolina and N.C. State. These wins, however, were only considered upsets because of the team’s dismal 3-13 record in the ACC and winless season away from Littlejohn Coliseum.
Purnell knows a little something about upsets. This summer in Athens, Purnell served as an assistant under Larry Brown coaching the U.S. Olympic Team, which suffered losses to Puerto Rico, Argentina and Lithuania. Although he was on the other side of the scorers’ table, Puerto Rico’s inspired play against the more talented Americans may have given him hope for the Tigers’ games against the likes of Wake Forest, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Duke.
“Every time I go to one of these experiences I learn and I look at players that have come from other places. I look at how they train, act, react,” Purnell said of the Olympics. “I incorporate those things into my coaching philosophy.”
As is characteristic of any rebuilding program, Purnell relies more heavily on underclassmen than would be ideal. A five-man recruiting class will add depth and improve the Tigers’ toughness and perimeter shooting.
North Carolina native Troy Mathis will likely make the most immediate impact, providing support for a shaky Clemson backcourt that was turnover-prone a year ago. Starting point guard Vernon Hamilton tallied 91 assists and 87 turnovers as a freshman in 2004. The coaching staff is also looking for Mathis, along with fellow rookies Cliff Hammonds and Cheyenne Moore, to bolster the Tigers’ perimeter shooting, which will take a hit from the loss of top three-point shooter Chey Christie.
“The incoming freshmen will make us more athletic and versatile than last year,” Purnell said. “We definitely gain in athleticism in that we should be able to get up and down the floor. We also want to extend the floor offensively and defensively and, in general, become more of a pressing team.”
Although the freshmen will provide much-needed support, Purnell will be depending on senior forward Sharrod Ford. The 6-foot-9, 223-pound big man was fourth in the ACC with 12 double-doubles last season. Ford will be a presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. His 64 blocks ranked second in the ACC last season and his 109 career blocks are already seventh in school history.
“I’ve been working on my body. I’ve gained 10 pounds. I’m working on my conditioning and trying to be in shape,” Ford said. “I’ve tried to add a little go-to move to my game, a little turnaround jump shot.”
If Purnell is going to rebuild the Clemson program, many think he will have to start with defense. The coaching staff has put a strong emphasis on defense during preseason workouts as the Tigers will try to improve on last season. Purnell has been in this spot before, having put together successful programs at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton.
“Overall, this year’s schedule looks to be as tough as last year,” Purnell said. “Our young ball club is certainly looking forward to the challenge.”
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