July 18, 2006
Clemson Head Coach Oliver Purnell hopes history repeats itself in 2007.
Seasons that have ended in “lucky number seven,” over the last 40 years have been special years at Clemson, and the fourth-year Tiger mentor hopes the trend continues. Over the last 40 years, the seasons that have ended in seven, Clemson has a combined winning percentage of 74.3.
The trend dates to 1967 when Bobby Roberts’s team finished 17-8, including a 9-5 record in ACC play, credentials that would have given the team an NCAA bid by today’s standards. That team won seven consecutive ACC games at one point, including wins over Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and NC State in an eight-day stretch in February. That seven-game ACC win streak is still a Clemson record.
The 1976-77 Clemson team led by Bill Foster finished with a 22-6 record, and was ranked in the top 20 in the nation for most of the season. Among the victories was a 20-point win over eventual national finalist North Carolina. That Tiger team was led by all-time great Tree Rollins, who was a third-team AP All-American in his senior year when Clemson ranked 10th in the nation in scoring.
The 1986-87 Clemson team recorded a school record 25 wins against just six losses and had a top 15 final ranking in all three major polls that year. Horace Grant was named the ACC Player of the Year and Cliff Ellis was named the ACC,s Coach of the Year. Clemson had a school record five sweeps of ACC foes on the way to a 10-4 league mark.
The 1996-97 Clemson team posted a 23-10 record and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament behind current NBA player Greg Buckner. Rick Barnes had the Tigers 16-1 and a program best #2 ranking the AP poll on January 23. The team had five wins over top 25 teams, including a season opening victory over defending NCAA Champion Kentucky.
Can the 2006-07 Clemson Tigers continue the trend? Oliver Purnell welcomes back four starters and nine lettermen from last year’s 19-win team that had a 7-9 league record, the most ACC wins for the program since the 1997-98 campaign. It will be a challenge because Purnell must find returning players to make up for the graduation of 2005-06 seniors Akin Akingbala, Shawan Robinson and Steve Allen.
“We asked those young men (2006 seniors) to have career years and they delivered,” said Purnell, who is serving as the President of the NABC this year, the first Clemson coach in any sport to serve as national president of a coaching organization.
“We needed career years from those young men to be successful, particularly from the big men. We were replacing Steve Allen played many effective minutes after never seeing much action due to injury in previous years. Akin became a tremendous force and just got better and better as the year went on, to the point where his ACC stats were better than his non-conference numbers for the course of the season.”
Replacing Akingbala’s 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game will be of tantamount importance when practice starts in October. He averaged 13.1 points per game and shot 55 percent in ACC play. He finished the season with five consecutive double-doubles, including 19 points and 13 rebounds in the NIT against Louisville, and averaged 15.5 points and 11 rebounds a game over the last eight contests of the season. His career field goal percentage of 58.8 is third in Clemson history, trailing only Harold Jamison and Horace Grant.
Robinson will be Clemson’s only significant loss in the backcourt, but it is substantial when you consider his impact on Clemson from a shooting standpoint. He averaged a team best 12.3 points per game and shot an ACC best 91.3 percent from the foul line, the fourth best single season free throw percentage in ACC history and the third best percentage in the nation in 2005-06. He finished his career with 203 three-point goals, third best in Clemson history.
“We rode Shawan’s hot shooting down the stretch to win four of our last five games in the regular season,” said Purnell. Only North Carolina had a better conference record over the last five games of the ACC season. “He had everything to do with that. That allowed us to cap off the season successfully. The season was in the balance with seven games left and he carried us.”
Replacing three seniors, who all earned their undergraduate degrees from Clemson on May 12, 2006, will be difficult from a leadership standpoint. They were the driving force that led Clemson to an outstanding season. Robinson was a four-time Academic All-ACC selection, the first four-time choice in Clemson history.
“We only have one senior in Vernon Hamilton, but we expect him to be an outstanding leader. We have some juniors who are also very capable and will step up in this role.”
Clemson’s slogan for the 2006-07 season is “Reaching Higher.” The program has improved its overall win total from 10 to 16 to 19 in Purnell’s three seasons, and the nine-win improvement is the best in a two-year period in 20 years. The same goes for the ACC ledger, which has improved by two games each of the last two years. Clemson has not participated in the NCAA Tournament since 1998, but reaching the event in 2007 is a realistic goal with just a slightly higher victory total overall and in the ACC.
The Tigers might have made the NCAAs last year had starting power forward James Mays not left the team due to academic difficulties in December. The Tigers had a perfect 11-0 record with Mays in the lineup last year, including a championship in the San Juan Shootout, Clemson’s first eight-team regular season title in 25 years. Mays has returned to the program and will be eligible to play when the season opens in November.
“With James returning to the lineup, we will play the same pressing style we used at the beginning of last year. We had to go away from that style somewhat when he left the team. He is one of the best I have ever seen at playing at the head of the press and we will use that ability to our benefit.
“We will try to spread the floor defensively, our style won’t change much from the beginning of last year. We will strive to put as much pressure as possible on the opponent all over the court. With the maturity of Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds, I see defense as one of the strengths of this team.”
Hamilton and Hammonds are returning starters in the backcourt. They are among the most experienced backcourts in the ACC with 122 career starts between them. Both averaged in double figures last year and hope to enhance those averages in 2006-07. K.C. Rivers is a third backcourt player with starting experience returning. Rivers averaged 7.1 points per game in playing all 32 games as a freshman.
Returning frontcourt players include Raymond Sykes is a center-forward who replaced Mays at the head of the press in the second half of last season and is an outstanding defender.
Four freshmen will have an impact on the Tigers in 2006-07. All four are listed at 6-6 or taller. Trevor Booker, the South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year in 2006, is a 6-7 forward from Union, SC, while David Potter is a 6-6 wing player from Bradenton, FL. A.J. Tyler, a 6-9 native of Palm Harbor, FL, and Karolis Petrukonis is a 6-11 center from Trakai, Lithuania will make contributions to the frontcourt.
The leader of the Clemson backcourt and of the entire team will be senior point guard Vernon Hamilton. He is the only senior on the squad, but is a player who will relish his role. He made great strides last year when he brought his scoring average from 6.8 points to 12.0 per game. He also improved his game in terms of assist/turnover ratio, three-point shooting and overall field goal percentage.
“We need a career best year from Vernon,” said Purnell. “He started out that way last year and faded a bit because of an arm and thumb injury at the end of the year. He has tremendous defensive presence and there is no reason he can’t be one of the best point guards in the ACC this year. We need him to be a team leader. That is what seniors do and we are sure he will fill that role this year.”
Hamilton came into last year with the reputation of an outstanding defensive player who had offensive liabilities. But, he made great strides to erase that reputation when he had 31 points against a number-one ranked Duke team on 14-19 field goal shooting. The native of Richmond, VA was named the MVP of the San Juan Shootout when he averaged 13.3 points per game in three Tiger victories. He had 19 double figure scoring games for the year, including a 24-point performance against Georgia Tech in March, in just 27 minutes. He averaged 12.0 points per game overall, shot 36 percent from the three-point land and ranked second on the team in assists.
His biggest impact was on defense, where he had a school record 83 steals for the season. He led the ACC in steals per game, the first Tiger in history to do that, and was named to the ACC’s All-Defense team. He also made some national All-Defense teams and ranked 15th in the nation in steals per game. He has already established the Clemson career record for steals with 201. He might be the only active ACC player with more steals (201) than fouls (193) over his career.
Joining Hamilton in the backcourt will be returning two-year starter Cliff Hammonds. The native of Cairo, GA averaged 10.1 points per game last year, his second consecutive season with a double figure average. He is the first Clemson player to average in double figures as a freshman and sophomore since Terrell McIntyre did it 10 years ago.
“We will look to Shawan Robinson. Cliff struggled early last year, but came on strong at the conclusion of the season. We look for him and K.C. to have a consistent shooting season and give us some scoring from the perimeter.”
Hammonds scored 30 points in the two NIT games to improve his scoring average to double figures for his sophomore season. He now has 101 career three-point goals in two seasons, on pace to rank among the top five in Clemson history. He finished strong last year when he made at least one three-point goal in each of his last 10 games, and made 18 of his last 38 from three-point land.
An outstanding ball handler, Hammonds led the Tigers in assists and assist/turnover ratio last year, when he had 23 assists and just five turnovers over the last six games of the year. Hammonds is an outstanding student-athlete who has a career 3.0 GPA in architecture. He is attempting to become the first scholarship Clemson basketball player on record to earn a degree in that academic discipline.
“Cliff is one of the best defenders in the ACC, but with Vernon leading the ACC in steals, he didn’t get that much attention in that area. But, many nights it is Cliff who is guarding the top offensive wing player on the opposition.” Hammonds joined Hamilton among the top 10 players in the ACC in steals per game with 56 in his 32 games, and he has 99 career steals in his first two years.
K.C. Rivers is a third returning backcourt player with significant experience. As a freshman he started 12 games and is actually considered a returning starter from last year (Robinson started just 11 times). The native of Charlotte was fifth on the team in total points scored when he averaged 7.1 points per game and was third on the club in total three-point goals made with 44.
In addition to his aforementioned team rankings in scoring and three-point goals, he was also second on the club in free throw shooting and is first among returning players. Additionally, he was in the top five on the club in assists, steals, minutes and assist/turnover ratio. “K.C. is a player who does a lot of little things, he contributes in many areas,” said Purnell of his 6-5 sophomore.
Rivers will see time as a shooting guard and small forward. Purnell will be looking for more of the offensive outbursts he showed last year at Wake Forest (16 points in last eight minutes of regulation) and at Virginia Tech (three three-point goals in six-minute spurt in second half helping Tigers to victory).
David Potter is one of the rookies who will contribute in the backcourt. Viewed as a similar player in style to K.C. Rivers, Potter is a 6-6 wing player from Florida. He attended IMG Academies and was ranked among the top 25 guards or small forwards in the nation by Scout.com and Rivalshoops.com.
Matt Morris and Jesse Yanutola are a pair of walk-ons who will contribute in the backcourt. Morris, a 4.0 student, scored 14 points in eight games as a reserve, including nine points in 13 minutes against Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. Yanutola scored three points as a freshman in six games.
“Our lack of experience in the frontcourt is a concern,” said Purnell. “But we were in the same situation entering last season. During the preseason a year ago the media asked me, `Who is going to replace Akin Akingbala?'”
“We will need some young players to step up their game. We don’t have a senior among our frontcourt players. But, I am confident in the talent and the work ethic of the frontcourt players on our roster. James Mays became ineligible and that should certainly help us this year. The three freshmen have strong upside potential. They can make us deep team in the front court, which is something we want to be with our pressing style.”
James Mays will be the leader among Clemson frontcourt players. The 6-9 native of Garner, NC averaged 9.2 points, shot 54 percent from the field and pulled in 7.6 rebounds per game in 11 contests last year. The leader of Clemson’s full court press that was so important in Clemson’s 11-0 start, he had 14 steals and 17 blocked shots in those 11 games. In 43 career games, Mays has 40 blocks and 47 steals, contributing factors to Clemson’s top 20 national finishes in blocks and steals over the last two years.
Clemson fans will most remember his performance in the 19-point win over state rival South Carolina, the largest margin of defeat for the Gamecocks during their 2006 NIT Championship season. Mays scored a career high 19 points in a head-to-head meeting with first-round draft choice Renaldo Balkman. He made 7-9 shots from the field and had seven rebounds in just 29 minutes.
James Mays are nicknamed, “The Energy Brothers,” a moniker they were first given as freshmen when Purnell inserted the duo in the game at the same time. The result was usually a change in momentum in Clemson’s favor thanks to their energetic play, especially on the defensive end of the court.
Perry missed his partner the last two thirds of the 2005-06 season, but he still contributed 38 steals, a big part of the 352 by the Tigers, a figure that was a record in Clemson history and ranked second in the nation on a per game basis (11.0). Perry started 22 of the 32 games in 2005-06 and scored 6.3 points per game. A slasher offensively, Perry shot 48.5 percent from the field as a sophomore and has a career figure of 48.1. A good ball handler, Perry had just 34 turnovers in 32 games last year.
The native of Greenville, SC is perhaps the most popular player with the Clemson fans. He has been a thorn in the side of Maryland over the last two years, and is a big reason Clemson has won four straight from the Terps, Clemson’s longest winning streak against Maryland since 1951.
Powell started 11 games as a freshman, including eight in ACC play. He averaged 5.5 points and 2.7 rebounds as a power forward and small forward. The native of Newton, NC first showed his capabilities in the ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge when he led the Tigers to a victory at Penn State with 16 points thanks to 4-7 three-point shooting. He also had 16 in the win over Georgia Tech when he made 4-6 three-point shots. For the season, Powell connected on 31 three-point shots, fourth best on the team. He had a higher scoring average in ACC games (6.1) than non-conference games (5.2), a rarity for a freshman.
Raymond Sykes is another returning letterman up front. The athletic 6-9 shot blocker scored 24 points and collected 25 rebounds in 152 minutes as a first-year freshman. As stated above by Purnell, Sykes got more playing time after Mays left the team. He showed his capabilities when given that opportunity, especially defensively, in the win over Wake Forest when he had three blocked shots and a steal in 15 minutes. He also showed prowess offensively as a low post player last year when he made 11-20 shots from the field. He had three offensive rebounds in limited play against Virginia in an impressive performance.
“We have some versatility up front and Raymond Sykes will have a lot to do with that. If we play James and Raymond at the same time we could really spread the court defensively. We hope Raymond can improve his low post skills, which will allow James to play out top in the four spot.” Three freshmen will contributed in the frontcourt for Purnell’s Tigers. They will all be important components as Clemson attempts to improve in the rebounding area, where it had a -3.0 rebound margin in ACC games last year. “We have some size, strength and athleticism coming in with Booker, Tyler and Petrukonis,” said Purnell. “I am not worried about our rebounding as long as we stay healthy. If we stay healthy we will be able to press and force other teams to spread out their offense, which should lead to long shots and long rebounds.”
Trevor Booker is a 6-7 and 215-pound forward from Union High School in Union, SC. He averaged over 22 points and 16.4 rebounds per game as a senior. He was a first-team All-State selection in high school each of his last two seasons and had over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career. “Trevor is a physical player who has no fear,” said Purnell of the 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of South Carolina. “His rebounding is impressive and that is something we will need from him from day one.”
Karolis Petrukonis is a 6-11 260-pound center from Lithuania who has experience playing in the World Junior Tournament as a member of the Lithuanian team. He averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds at Norfolk Collegiate School in Virginia last year. “Karolis has tremendous size and a good shooting touch. He does a good job of shielding his opponent with his body. We hope he can adjust to playing against bigger competition at the college level.”
A.J. Tyler is a 6-9 frontcourt player who could help Clemson in the same role Julius Powell did last year. The 225-pounder from Palm Harbor, FL averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds per game over his last two seasons of high school. He shot 78 percent from the foul line as a junior playing at the 5A high school level in Florida. “Tyler is a pick-and-pop player like Julius Powell, only bigger. He has a good basketball I.Q. Hopefully he will make a significant contribution this coming season.”
With nine lettermen returning, including six players who have been starters for significant periods of time over the last two years, Purnell looks at the 2006-07 season with optimism. “We have many keys for this coming season. First, we have to stay healthy so we can use a lot of players and implement our press. Second is shooting. We obviously have to improve our free throw shooting (ACC worst .617 last year), and be effective from the outside. Third, we have to rebound well.”
A healthy roster with solid shooting stats could lead to another landmark seventh season in the 21st Century.TMTM
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