March 4, 1998
by James Brunson
When most college freshmen express a desire to come home for a visit, their parents welcome them with open arms, cook them some “real” food and joyfully wash the mound of dirty clothes. Had Greg Buckner’s mother gone through this routine when Greg was a freshman, the course of Clemson basketball history could have been changed forever. Luckily for Tiger fans, she did not blink twice before telling him not to return to his native Hopkinsville, KY.
As Buckner and his fellow Tigers were struggling through “Camp Barnes” in the Fall of 1994, Buckner walked out of practice one day with no intentions of ever suiting up in a Tiger uniform. “I quit because I got tired of Coach Barnes yelling at me,” recalls Buckner with a smile today. “I wasn’t coming back, but I called my Mom and she said that I couldn’t come home. I needed to stick it out.”
The experience gave Buckner an instant dosage of responsibility and maturity and raised his work ethic to a new level. On the court, he had a landmark freshman season. He became only the fourth freshman in ACC history to lead his team in scoring (12.0 ppg), rebounding (5.9 rpg), and field goal percentage (.526). The achievement of this rare triple crown led to his selection as the conference’s Rookie-of-the-Year, a first in Clemson history.That season set the stage for a career that has seen Buckner become a model player in Coach Barnes’ system- tough, versatile and consistent.
Ironically, Buckner may be the greatest player in ACC history who did not originally sign with an ACC school. He originally signed with Barnes when he was the coach at Providence during the early signing period in November of 1993. Fortunately for Clemson, the Friars released him when Barnes made his move to Clemson. “It was definitely the right choice for two reasons,” says Clemson’s only senior. “First of all, I don’t like cold weather. Second, Coach Barnes has made me work hard all of the time. I was lackadaisical in high school.”
The 1994-95 team, which had been picked to finish last in the league and to be one of the worst teams in conference history, set a reputation of physical toughness that has stuck with the program ever since. “His mental and athletic toughness is what makes him the caliber player that he is,” says Barnes.
No Clemson fan would argue with Barnes’ assessment, either. Many whitnessed Buckner leave last year’s home game against Virginia with blood pouring from his head, only to return a few minutes later to lead Clemson to an important victory. He played the Kentucky game last year with a badly pulled hamstring, but still had 13 points and seven assists to help Clemson to its greatest non-conference victory in history. “Coach Barnes instills toughness in his teams and the whole program,” said Buckner.
Buckner needs tough mental attitude to play every day, because he suffers from asthma. “When I was young , my Mom wouldn’t let me do anything because of it. It doesn’t really affect me today. I just play through it and try not to let it bother me.” Despite the problem, he has never missed starting a game for Clemson.
Versatility is another aspect of Buckner’s game that no one will dispute. As a freshman, Buckner started at forward and led the undersized team in rebounding. Each of the last two seasons he has led the team in scoring and been among the rebound leaders playing the small forward position. This year he has made the switch to guard. Again, Buckner leads the team in scoring and is attempting to become just the fifth player in ACC history to lead his team in scoring for four straight years.
“Growing up, I was never real tall or real short. If the guy defending me was taller, then I would step outside, but if he was shorter, then I would try to post him up.” It is an asset that Rick Barnes has come to appreciate. “We like to play a versatile game, and Buckner is as versatile as any player I’ve ever coached. He continues to improve in every area of his game.”
The consistency that he adds to the Clemson program is perhaps his greatest attribute. He has never missed a start at Clemson, breaking Tree Rollins record at midseason. The streak stands at 119 entering the ACC Tournament, one of the five longest starting streaks in ACC history. He enters the ACC Tournament ranked third in Clemson history in career scoring, yet he has just two career games in the 30s. But, he ranks second to Elden Campbell in career double figure scoring games, a mark Buckner could eclipse in this tournament.
His consistency and versatility are best shown in his career statistical rankings at Clemson. In addition to his point total ranking, he is also in the top 15 in Clemson history in steals, assists and rebounds. Earlier this year he joined Horace Grant and Vincent Hamilton as the only players in Clemson history with over 1500 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists.
There have been many standout performances in Buckner’s final year. Perhaps the most noteworthy single game took place January 3 at Clemson when he scored 30 points, had seven rebonds and five assists against number-one ranked North Carolina. “I don’t think if we had had Michael Jordan on him we could have stopped him,” said North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge. “We didn’t seem to have a defense that could stop him. He is fun to watch if yoi are not playing against him.”
Buckner has seen the Clemson program grow in his four years, and he has had a lot to do with it. “The biggest change has been in the fan interest and the exitement at our games. The expectation level has grown, but that is good.”
Even with all of his individual accomplishments, Buckner looks back on a team achievement as his favorite moment as a Clemson player. “Beating Miami (OH) last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament has to be my favorite moment here. Everyone was down on us after we were beaten in the ACC Tournament by Maryland in the first round. Coach Barnes had struggled in tournament games, but we were able to come out and get a big win that helped propel us to the sweet 16.”
It is a moment that Barnes will certainly remember also, one of many created with Greg Buckner as the cornerstone. “I can’t say enough about what Greg Buckner has done for this program,” Barnes summarized. “He has set an example that others will follow for a long time. He is simply one of Clemson’s greatest players in history.”
Thank goodness Greg Buckner’s mother had the instinct to tell her young son to ride through the pains of a difficult first semester of 1994. Clemson basketball has benefitted greatly from her advice.
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