July 11, 2005
The 2004-05 Clemson basketball team made great strides in Oliver Purnell’s second year as head coach. The Tigers advanced to postseason play for the first time in the 21st century, and made a six-victory improvement over the previous season, the greatest one-season victory improvement by a Clemson team since 1986-87. The 16 victories, included three wins over 2002 National Champion Maryland, the first time Clemson has ever won three games from the Terps in the same season.
Other highlights included a victory over Big Ten power Ohio State in the ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge, a thrilling overtime triumph against rival South Carolina, and a buzzer beater victory over Virginia Tech on Sharrod Ford’s and Olu Babalola’s Senior Night game. Clemson was the talk of the ACC Tournament when it upset Maryland, then took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the final minute before suffering a seven-point loss.
These accomplishments were made with a team that featured four first-year freshmen who brought energy and excitement to Littlejohn Coliseum. As a result, interest and optimism in the program is its highest since Clemson’s last NCAA Tournament season in 1998. “I was pleased with the direction our team took last year,” said Purnell, who brought Radford and Old Dominion to 20-win seasons in his third year at each school. “The team showed maturity despite its youth last year.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the way our team handled first-time situations, whether it be the first game, the first ACC game, the first game on National TV (win over Ohio State in ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge), and of course winning on the road at South Carolina, and the ACC Tournament.
“They handled everything very well and that bodes well for the future. Experience is very important. Those successful experiences are going to help us quite a bit in the coming years. We played as well as anyone in the league in February and March. We would have liked to have won more games and advanced further in the ACC Tournament and the NIT, but that gives us something to shoot for.”
What the Tigers will be shooting for is the NCAA Tournament. Many coaches avoid talking about the NCAA Tournament when it comes to a preseason outlook, but Purnell feels it will be a motivating factor for his team that returns four starters and 10 lettermen.
“The NCAA Tournament is definitely on our mind. Naturally winning more games in the ACC is something we strive to do as well, and we will have to do that to reach the tournament. We have had a couple of solid recruiting classes and now we need to follow that up with positive experiences, giving us something to build on. We did that last year and we feel we can make improvement this year.”
A look to the ACC reveals another daunting task as the league will be among the best, if not the best in the country. Boston College, a top 20 team last year that started 20-0, will only make the league stronger. But, many ACC teams lost outstanding players to graduation and early entry into the NBA draft.
“We are looking to come up in the league and have some of the other teams come back to us. We have a legitimate chance to move up.
“We go into this season fearing no one. We are going to go into every game believing we can win. It is still probably going to be the toughest league in the nation, especially when you now add Boston College, who will be near the top in the preseason standings, probably trailing only Duke.”
For Clemson to show continued improvement it will have to do so without 2004-05 senior All-ACC center Sharrod Ford’s. Ford was Clemson’s leading scorer (14.9 points per game) leading rebounder (8.2 rebounds per game) and top shot blocker (68). He was also a team leader who was outstanding in directing a squad that played four first-year freshmen a combined 80 minutes per game. Olu Babalola’s was Clemson’s fourth leading scorer last year with a 6.8 average and his aggressive style also will be missed.
“We will miss Sharrod’s presence on the inside offensively and especially defensively. His ability to block shots and make up for some defensive errors on the perimeter was huge last year. As we build this program, we owe a lot to Sharrod and Olu Babalola’s.”
Clemson will play a lineup with five players, so someone will have to carry on in the pivot for Ford, who left Clemson ranked in the top 10 in school history in career rebounding and blocked shots. Purnell won’t ask any specific frontcourt player to come in and average 15 points and eight rebounds per game. Ford will be replaced by committee.
“We will go into the season with a mindset that we will have to play the position by committee. We won’t ask for an All-ACC performance out of Akin Akingbala, Steve Allen or James Mays. If we can play that position by committee and get improved seasons at the other positions we have a chance to be better.
“Akin will begin the preseason as our starter. He has the talent and has had some success here, especially in spurts. We are looking for him to carry a more significant load than he has had in the past. He can stay with any center in the ACC for a short period. We have to increase his stamina.
“We will miss Sharrod,s leadership. We will look to Akin and Shawan Robinson in that area obviously as they are four-year players, but we have leaders among our young players. Cliff Hammonds had a tremendous freshman year. When he speaks, the others listen. His work ethic is outstanding. We are talking about a guy who played football, basketball and track in high school and was the class valedictorian.”
Hammonds is one of the Tiger sophomores who have Clemson fans excited about the coming season. The four 2004-05 freshmen (Hammonds, James Mays, Sam Perry and Cheyenne Moore) combined to score 814 points, pull in 394 rebounds and play 2577 minutes. That represented 35.5 percent of Clemson’s points and 33 percent of the rebounds. Clemson freshmen combined to start 68 games, more than any other ACC school.
As far as strength and weaknesses are concerned, the Tigers should be more perimeter oriented in 2005-06. In fact, this is the best collection of young backcourt and wing talent in the Clemson program since the mid-1990s when Rick Barnes NCAA Tournament team included current NBA veteran Greg Buckner, #2 all-time leading scorer Terrell McIntyre, current Spanish professional Iker Iturbe, and Tony Christie, a starter on three Clemson NCAA Tournament teams.
“Our strength has to be on the perimeter,” said Purnell, an outstanding guard in his own right when he led Old Dominion to the Division II National Championship 30 years ago. “Last year our strength was on the inside with Sharrod Ford’s and we revolved our attack around him. This year we have to look more to the perimeter where we have some depth. That may allow us to get out and pressure even more. If you are attacking both ends of the floor on the perimeter it can help your inside because it will take the pressure off the post.”
While this sounds like the Tigers will play a different style of play this year, Purnell says the basics of Clemson’s offensive and defensive strategies won’t change that much. People thought we were a pressing team last year, but we really weren’t. This year we will press and run more because our roster experience lends itself to that.”
Backcourt Purnell has three returning starting guards and wing players, plus the addition of a talented point guard who red-shirted the 2004-05 season. The corporation of Robinson, Hamilton and Hammonds has combined for 180 games played, 96 games started, 1545 points and 467 assists. All three were significant reasons Clemson made great strides last year.
Robinson is the most experience player on the Clemson roster in terms of playing time (1990 minutes), games played (88), points scored (784), three-point goals (140) and assists (196). Clemson,s second leading scorer behind Sharrod Ford’s in each of the last two years is sixth in Clemson history in career three-point goals and three-point goal percentage (.406).
“If he plays like he did at the beginning and the end we will take it and run with it. He was leading the ACC in three categories early in the season. We brought him off the bench in the second half of the season and he played very well. He is playing with athletes in action this summer in China and that will help him. We need him to have a year like Sharrod Ford’s did last year from a consistency standpoint. He can be one of the most dangerous players in the league.”
Robinson showed his capabilities at the ACC Tournament in Washington, DC last March when he was named second-team All-Tournament, the first Tiger to receive an All-ACC Tournament honor in seven years. For the two games at the MCI Center, Robinson made 15-24 shots from the field, including an incredible 9-12 three-point shots. He had just four turnovers in 55 minutes and scored 41 points. He scored 18 more points than any other Tiger. He had 24 points in just 26 minutes in the first-round win over home favorite Maryland, including 12 in a 4:33 flurry that turned the game in Clemson’s favor late in the first half.
Cliff Hammonds started 31 games a year ago as a freshman, the all-time Clemson first-year freshman record. He led the team in playing time with 30.3 minutes per game, the first rookie in Clemson history to do that. His 10.8 scoring average was third best on the Tiger team, and his 338 points were the fourth most in Clemson history for a freshman.
At season’s end Hammonds was named to the ACC All-Rookie team and was named an honorable mention freshman All-American by various services. He was a four-time ACC Rookie of the Week selection, the most selections ever by a Clemson player.
“His father has a military background and his mother has always been a hard worker, and he had an outstanding high school coach in Ike Chance. He has a mindset that whatever he does he is going to do well and to the best of his ability. He is not comfortable unless he is working hard. That is who he is.”
Hammonds accomplished all of that despite playing three different positions with a shoulder problem. The brace is now off and Hammonds spent the summer shooting 1,000 jump shot a day as he strives to improve on his 36 percent three-point marksmanship in 2005-06. His 60 three-point goals were the second highest total in Clemson history by a freshman. Five of them came in the season finale at Texas A&M in the NIT when he scored 26 points, most by a Clemson freshman in nine years.
Vernon Hamilton is a junior who has two years of off-and-on starting experience under his belt. Clemson’s first scholarship player from Virginia in 30 years is the program’s career leader in steals on a per game basis and his 68 steals last year were the second high first for a season. He averaged 6.8 points per game last year to rank fifth on the team, third among returnees.
“Vernon has been around the block and knows how difficult it is to win in this league. He has the athletic ability and experience to be a solid point guard in this league. He needs to and will spend time working on his shooting and more time in the film room. But overall, he was our most improved player over the course of last season.”
Hamilton finished the year strong with double figure scoring games in five of his last eight games, including a season high 16 points against NBA Top five draft choice Raymond Felton and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament.
A fourth guard on the Clemson roster is red-shirt freshman Troy Mathis. Mathis, like Robinson, is a native of North Carolina who comes to Clemson with outstanding shooting and ball handling credentials. He worked as the scout team point guard last year during practice in the second semester and thus will have more experience than most freshmen. He averaged 21 points and five rebounds as a senior for Laurinburg Charter Prep in Raleigh in 2003-04. He averaged 29 points a game as a junior, including a game in which he scored 73 points, had nine assists and 11 steals.
Clemson must replace four-year letterman Olu Babalola’s (694 career points) at the small forward position, but does have two returning sophomores who were big reasons the Tigers were the only team in the nation to rank in the top 20 in steals and blocked shots on a per game basis.
Cheyenne Moore started 17 games between early December and late January and finished the year with a 6.6 scoring average. A capable three-point shooter who made 39 long distance shots last year, Moore has the explosiveness to be a double figure scorer as a sophomore. Purnell would love to see him at the foul line more where he could take advantage of his 83 percent free throw accuracy.
Moore burst on the Clemson basketball scene last year when he scored a game-winning three-point goal at South Carolina with 3.4 seconds left in overtime to give Clemson a one-point win, the first road win of the Oliver Purnell’s era.
Sam Perry is also an exciting player on the wing for the Tigers. Perry started the last 12 games of the 2004-05 season and he averaged 4.0 points and 2.4 rebounds per game for the year. A gifted athlete who prides himself on playing at both ends of the court, Perry was named Clemson’s Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-5 Perry is capable of guarding opponents of all shapes and sizes. Just ask Maryland’s 6-9 Nik Caner-Medley who shot just 18-46 against Perry and the Tigers last year.
“Both Cheyenne and Sam are exciting players who are gifted athletes,” said Purnell. “Both had starting roles during their first-year freshman seasons and made big contributions. We look for Cheyenne to be improved from a consistency standpoint in his sophomore year.
“Sam was our best defensive player last year, yet I don’t think he understood a lot about defense. After going through the positioning aspect of it after a year, and with more film work, he will be an even better defender. If he improves his outside shooting and free throws, he can be a much improved player. No one on our team is any tougher than Sam. He plays with emotion and exuberance and enjoys competing on the court.”
K.C. Rivers is a first-year freshman who could be a factor at a wing position. A top 100 national recruit heading into last year, Rivers suffered a broken foot just prior to his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. The injury limited his playing time significantly, but he still had a positive impact on Oak Hill’s 34-2 National Championship season. As a junior, Rivers averaged 12 points per game and once made 15 three-point goals in one game, a school record. Rivers is the only player in Oak Hill history to play on two USA Today National Championship teams.
Matt Morris is a walk-on who will also see playing time. He played 13 minutes as a reserve and scored five points last year as a first-year freshman. He scored 143 three-point goals during his high school career, a school record.
Frontcourt As stated above, replacing Sharrod Ford’s and his impact on the Clemson frontcourt will be the biggest question mark for Purnell this preseason.
Akin Akingbala, Steve Allen and James Mays are returning lettermen who will combine to hold down the center spot. Mays is certainly capable of playing multiple positions. Freshmen Julius Powell and Raymond Sikeswill also be factors in the frontcourt.
Akingbala has the most experience among the players listed above. The senior from Nigeria has played in 73 career games, 17 as a starter. The 6-10 post player has made 60.2 percent of his field goal attempts in his career, the best field goal percentage in Clemson history among players with at least 100 made field goals.
Akingbala showed his capabilities last year when he scored 16 points in 18 minutes against a third-ranked Wake Forest team. He later had strong performances against North Carolina in Chapel Hill and in the ACC Tournament. He has been working hard on his stamina in the off season as he has played at least 20 minutes in a game just 17 times in his career while working as Ford’s understudy. He will have far more opportunities this year.
Allen is a 6-10 physical post player in his fifth year at Clemson. He played just 73 minutes in 21 games last year when he made 10-16 shots from the field. He had 22 points and 23 rebounds for the 73 minutes, figures that would equate to a double-double when pro-rated to a 40-minute game.
Mays was an active frontcourt player as a freshman when he averaged 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He finished the year strong, including a 5-5 field goal shooting effort in the two games in the ACC Tournament. For the year, he accumulated 23 blocks and 33 steals, just the second freshman in Clemson history to have at least 20 blocks and 30 steals in a season.
“James has been working on his ball handling, and his perimeter jump. He is over 220 pounds thanks to our off season conditioning program and that added strength will make him a better player. He was a significant factor for us last year and will continue to be this year, especially on the defensive end.
Powell averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and four blocks per game as a senior in high school. He was named first-team all-conference four consecutive years and was a two-time conference MVP. A 6-7 athletic player, Powell scored 2,424 career points. Sikes averaged a double-double each of his last two years of high school. He averaged 12 points and 10 blocks per game as a junior and 13 points and 10 rebounds as a senior.
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