Aug. 8, 2008
No one can deny that Oliver Purnell has brought the Clemson basketball program to a new level of excellence in his first five years at the helm. Clemson has improved its winning percentage each of the last four years, the only ACC team that can make that claim. The winning percentage reached the 71 percent mark in 2007-08, thanks to a 24-10 overall record, including a 10-6 mark and third-place finish in the ACC.
Purnell is the first coach to take Clemson to a winning percentage improvement four consecutive years since the early 1970s, and he has taken the program to 49 wins the last two years, a school record for wins over consecutive seasons.
The third-place league finish was the best for the Clemson program since the Tigers won the ACC regular season title in 1990 and the 10 league victories tied a school record. Clemson reached the ACC Championship game for the first time since 1962 and for just the second time in school history. The Tigers were a number-five seed in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the prestigious field for the first time since 1998.
Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips has certainly recognized the consistent improvement when he offered the Tigers head coach a contract extension that would keep him at Clemson through 2014.
Purnell has three starters and 11 lettermen returning from last year’s team that ranked 22nd in the final Associated Press Poll, Clemson’s first final top 25 ranking since 1996-97. Despite the return of these veterans, a fifth straight year of improvement in the winning percentage column will be a challenge.
Clemson’s 2007-08 senior class (Cliff Hammonds, James Mays, Sam Perry and Matt Morris) tied the school record for victories in a four-year period with 84. That group also took the Tigers to 32 wins against ACC teams, including the run to the ACC Championship game in 2008, just the second league championship game appearance in school history.
Purnell knows he has some holes to fill with the departure of the 2008 seniors, especially in terms of defense and leadership.
“We will miss the seniors from last year, no doubt,” said Purnell. “We are talking about a group that won 84 games over four years. A big reason for our success has been defense and that group made so many big plays in that area.
“Cliff Hammonds guarded the toughest opposing player every night, so you just didn’t worry about the opposing team’s top player, you knew he was going to be there and stay with him. James Mays was the best I have ever coached in terms of playing at the point of the press, and how many exciting, key defensive plays did Sam Perry make over the last four years? So, with those guys gone, there is a concern about our defense.
“As far as leadership is concerned, Cliff Hammonds was the finest leader I have ever been around in all my years of coaching. He was the model student-athlete who our players respected. We followed his lead in every way. Someone will have to step up into that role.
“But, that is one of the strengths of our program. We play a lot of people and when you lose guys, others have experience and can step into that role.”
K.C. Rivers was the top scorer on last year’s team with a 14.7 average and he has already accumulated 1231 career points, 19th best in Clemson history. The senior from Charlotte, NC considered entering the NBA draft, but decided to return for his final year and help the Tigers continue their rise to the elite of the ACC.
Also returning are starting point guard Demontez Stitt and starting center Trevor Booker. Stitt averaged 8.8 points per game and had 97 assists when he started 20 of the 34 games last year. Booker has All-ACC talent after scoring in double figures each of the last two years. He has also been among the league’s top shot blockers.
Terrence Oglesby was a double figure scorer off the bench as a freshman sharpshooter, while David Potter and Raymond Sykes are experienced in the frontcourt and will challenge for a starting position. The same goes for power forward Jerai Grant, who had flashes of brilliance in his 249 minutes. Reserve center Karolis Petrukonis is also prepared to be a factor. Purnell also has four new freshmen who should all contribute in various areas.
The big question for Purnell from the media and his opponents for that matter will be style of play. Will his teams continue to play a pressure full court defense in light of the losses of the 2008 senior class? Clemson has ranked in the top 12 in the nation in steals per game each of the last four years, including a fourth place finish in 2008.
“Will we press as much without Cliff Hammonds and Sam Perry in the lineup? We still want to be a pressure defense team. We might not employ the full court pressure as much, we will just have to see how it works out in the preseason.
“We won’t change our overall scheme, but one team will be different from the other from year to year. This team will be better offensively than last year. We will be better in terms of free throw shooting. I loved our seniors last year, they were the reason we have made such a consistent improvement the last four years. But, it was not a good free throw shooting class.
“The freshmen have to help us this year whether they are starters or seventh or eighth guys because of our style of play. We need a lot of players to contribute to our system.
“They all give us something different. Catalin Baciu (known as “Bobo”) has size and mobility. Bryan Narcisse has athleticism. He has a chance to help us, especially on defense.
“Tanner Smith has great versatility and can make plays from different positions. With just one pure veteran point guard in the program in Stitt, obviously Andre Young is going to make a contribution. He will up-grade the shooting ability of this team.
“Philosophically, we’ll be the same, but going in, on paper, this team would look to be better offensively and not as good defensively. Our challenge is to get this team defensively as good as last year, and then we’re better. That is our overall goal, to be a better team than last year.”
Backcourt Clemson is most experienced in the backcourt and wing position where it returns two starters, plus a third player who averaged in double figures last year.
Wing player K.C. Rivers is the leader of the Clemson backcourt and the leader of the team for that matter. He averaged 14.7 points per game last year when led the Tigers in scoring, and added a career high 6.3 rebounds per game to rank third on the team. A 40.2 percent three-point shooter last year Rivers, has 212 career three-point goals and is on pace to break Terrell McIntyre’s career record of 259.
“K. C. will be one of our leaders this year,” said Purnell. “He has a chance to have a special senior season. He knows what it takes to win on a consistent basis in this league and he knows what it takes to get a team to the NCAA Tournament.
“K.C. is still an under rated player in this league and nationally. His best asset may be his overall basketball I.Q. He is a terrific offensive rebounder, and has one of the best assist/turnover ratios in the ACC and Clemson history.” Rivers has just 130 turnovers in 102 games as a guard over his Clemson career. He also is one of just two players in Clemson history with more steals than turnovers.
With the loss of Mays and Hammonds, Rivers could see his scoring average improve in his senior season. A second-team All-ACC player as a junior, Rivers showed what he could do in big games throughout last year, including the ACC Championship game against North Carolina when he scored 28 points and made first-team All-Tournament.
Also returning as a starter is point guard Demontez Stitt. Another native of North Carolina (Matthews), Stitt averaged 8.8 points per game a year ago in his first year with the Tiger program. He shot 41 percent from the field and made a consistent improvement in terms of outside shooting as the year progressed, especially in the NCAA Tournament game against Villanova when he made 4-4 three-point goals and scored 14 points.
Stitt also showed his ability to score from the foul line where he made 76 percent, including an 8-8 performance in the win at Mississippi State and in a victory at Virginia Tech when he made two free throws with 3.8 seconds left to give the Tigers the victory.
“Demontez made great improvement over the course of last season,”‘ said Purnell. “He has a unique ability to break opponents down off the dribble.” Stitt was very effective in this area against North Carolina and he scored in double figures in all three games against the Tar Heels.
Terrence Oglesby did not start a game as a freshman, but he made more of a contribution than many of the players who served as starters on several ACC teams last year. Oglesby ranked fourth on the team in scoring with a 10.5 average and led the team in three-point goals (85) and three-point shooting (.403). He achieved those stats while playing just 18.4 minutes per game.
Oglesby’s long range shots brought a strong reaction from fans at both home and away venues. However, he brought silence to the crowd at the Comcast Center at the University of Maryland on March 1 when his long three-point goal with 2.3 seconds left capped a 20-point second half comeback in a 73-70 Tiger victory that all but clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“Terrence is a fearless shooter,” said Purnell. “He will be even more valuable this year when the three-point line is lengthened. I can’t recall that many of his three-point goals were made while he was standing next to the line. Most of his three-point goals last year would count as three-pointers this year.”
Oglesby made 85 three point goals and shot 85 percent from the foul line. The three-point goal total set a Clemson record for a freshman and his free throw percentage was second best among Tiger freshmen all-time. His 356 points rank fifth best in school history among rookies.
His most impressive stat may be in the clutch scoring category. The native of Tennessee scored 54 points in games decided by 10 points or less or in overtime, the top figure on the Clemson team.
Two freshmen from the state of Georgia will be counted on to make contributions in the backcourt this coming season. Tanner Smith is a 6-5 wing player from Alpharetta, GA and Andre Young is a 5-9 point guard from Albany, GA.
“Andre is an exciting young player. I hear people compare him to (former Clemson All-ACC guard) Terrell McIntyre, but I did not see him play much. I love watching Andre play, because he is a winner, he has toughness, and he helps the shooting ability of our team.
Young ranked as the #78 player in the nation by Scout.com when he scored 2,062 points at Deerfield-Windsor School to a runner up finish in the state high school tournament. Young played in the Capital Classic last year and won the three-point shooting contest.
Smith was a second-team All-State player in Georgia who also played in the Capital Classic All-Star game last spring. He averaged 25 points per game as a junior and was named the MVP of the state championship game as a senior.
“Tanner Smith has versatility,” said Purnell. “He can play two or three different positions; the most important thing is that he makes basketball plays from any one of those. He makes the guys around him better.”
Returning lettermen walk-ons Zavier Anderson (5-9, So.), Jonah Baize (6-6, So.) and Jesse Yanutola (6-4, Sr.) will also make consistent contributions this year.
Frontcourt While Cliff Hammonds, Clemson center James Mays will not longer be in the lineup after a strong four-year career.
Booker stands just 6-7, the shortest center in the ACC, but he has ranked among the top five shot blockers in the league and among the top 50 in the nation in each of the last two years. He has 141 career blocked shots, and is in the top 10 in ACC history on a per game basis. He has also been ranked in the top four in the ACC in offensive rebounds each of the last two seasons.
“Trevor Booker can change a game in many ways,” said Purnell. “He has an outstanding inside game on the baseline, and can make game changing defensive plays as well. He has worked hard in the off season and is ready to have an outstanding junior year.”
Booker averaged 11.0 points per game as a sophomore after scoring 10.4 as a junior. He is a .578 career field goal percentage shooter, fifth best in school history. A starter in all 70 games over the last two years, he scored 61 points over consecutive games in January against Charlotte and Florida State. He had a breakout game against Duke in the ACC Tournament as well when he scored 18 points on 9-11 shooting.
James Mays at the other frontcourt position. The senior averaged 4.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game last year. He did start six games early in the season when Mays was injured and he made a strong contribution. Against Mississippi he made 8-8 field goals and scored 17 points.
The native of Jacksonville, FL is a 58 percent field goal shooter for his career and has 70 blocked shots in just 1033 minutes, a rate that is better than Trevor Booker on a per minute basis.
David Potter, Jerai Grant and Karolis Petrukonis are three more returning lettermen who will have an impact on the Clemson success level in 2008-09. Potter played in all 34 games as a small forward or power forward last year, while Grant came off the bench in 30 contests as a freshman.
Potter averaged 4.8 points and 2.1 rebounds per game last year as a sophomore. The native of Severn, MD improved his field goal percentage by nine percent, his three-point percentage by 17 percent and his free throw percentage by 12 percent in 2007-08. He had three consecutive double figure scoring games off the bench at midseason against Boston College, Virginia and North Carolina.
Grant averaged 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds per game as a reserve power forward last year. He shot 46 percent from the field and blocked 20 shots in just 250 minutes. The lone frontcourt signee from the 2007-08 class is the son of former Clemson and NBA player Harvey Grant. Petrukonis is a junior who has scored 14 points in limited action the last two seasons, and gives the Tigers some size on the inside.
Two freshmen should contribute to the frontcourt cause this year. Catalin Baciu is a 7-2 freshman from Romania and Bryan Narcisse is a 6-6 freshman from North Augusta, SC.
Baciu is the tallest signee in Clemson history. A consensus top 150 player who played his high school basketball at Veritas Christian Academy in Asheville, NC, Baciu averaged 7.1 points and 7.1 rebounds as the youngest member of the Romanian National team in 2007.
“Baciu is a skilled big man who gained experience as a member of the Romanian National Team last year,” said Purnell. “He has an outstanding baseline game and can defend down low.”
Narcisse is an athletic frontcourt player who averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots at North Augusta High School in North Augusta, SC. A state champion at the 4A level in the high jump in high school, Narcisse has a 7-0 wing span and will be a candidate to contribute to Clemson’s pressing defense.
“Bryan Narcisse could be an answer for a replacement for James Mays at the head of the press. He is only 6-6 in height, but he has a 7-0 wingspan that suits our aggressive defense.”
Overall, it will be a challenge for Purnell to exceed last year’s accomplishments, but the program is on a sound foundation heading into year six of the Purnell era.
“Last year brought our program to another level,” said Purnell. “Our brand is hot right now. Reaching the ACC Championship game by beating Duke and then taking North Carolina to the final minutes brought credibility to our program. The ACC Championship game was one of the top five viewed college games last year. The exposure certainly helped our program. We play an exciting brand of basketball and it is showing up in the quality of players we are attracting to our program.”
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