July 6, 2007
Oliver Purnell has made great progress in his first four years as head coach of the Clemson basketball program. The Tigers have shown an improvement by at least three victories each of the last three years, including a six-win improvement to a school record tying 25 wins in 2006-07. He joined just two other ACC coaches in history (Bobby Cremins and Mike Krzyzewski) as the only league mentors to take an ACC program to at least a three-victory improvement in three consecutive years.
The 2006-07 Tigers recorded just the eighth 20-win season in school history and the 69.4 winning percentage was seventh-best in school history. The squad recorded 13 wins over teams that would win at least 20 games in 2006-07, and nine of the 25 total wins came away from home, most by a Clemson team in 10 years, and the second-most wins away from home among ACC schools.
Clemson was the last team in the nation to suffer a loss after a 17-0 start and was the last team in the nation to suffer a non-conference loss (18-0 until NIT championship loss to West Virginia). Clemson was ranked in the top 25 of the USA Today poll for eight consecutive weeks in December and January and had a number-one ranking in the Sagarin computer poll in December.
The Tigers closed the season fast with six wins in their last eight games, the first time Clemson has done that in 40 years. Clemson had a school record 4-0 mark against SEC teams and finished 6-1 against schools from other BCS conferences. The young squad with just one scholarship senior concluded the season with a run to the finals of the NIT, just the third time in history Clemson reached the championship game of a postseason tournament. Clemson finished the season with more wins than Duke, Kentucky, and Indiana, the first time that has happened since the 1937-38 season.
While the 2006-07 season was filled with landmark team accomplishments and records, there was one accomplishment left off the resume…an NCAA Tournament appearance. With four starters returning, and four returning players who averaged at least 10 points per game, Clemson basketball fans are excited about the prospects of Purnell’s fifth Tiger team.
“Our goal is the same as always, to be a better team,” said Purnell, who is one of just seven active Division I coaches to record a 20-win season at four different Division I schools. “We have done that each of the last three years. Obviously the next step is to get to the NCAA Tournament. We did a lot of good things last year, tying the record for wins, tying the record for the best start (17-0), but we have to do a little more to get into the NCAA Tournament. Everyone involved in this program is responsible for doing a little bit more to make that happen.”
To be successful in the difficult ACC, experience and depth are of paramount importance and Purnell feels this Clemson team has both.
“I see two main areas of strength at this time. First, we have experience. We lost just one scholarship player off of our 25-win team of a year ago in Vernon Hamilton. It is a big loss because Vernon was a leader, a starting point guard for most of the last four years. He is our career leader in steals and among the Clemson leaders in assists.
“But, we have many experienced players returning in the frontcourt and the backcourt. Cliff Hammonds, K.C. Rivers, and Sam Perry are experienced wing players (268 career games) and David Potter gained a lot of experience and confidence from the NIT last year.
“In the frontcourt, James Mays, Trevor Booker, and Raymond Sykes have been through many ACC battles. Mays and Booker are among the top frontcourt combinations in the ACC in my opinion. They are athletic and can cause problems offensively and defensively for the opposition.
“I also see depth as a strength this year. We have four returning starters and 11 returning lettermen. Four of our returning players averaged in double figures last year.
“We are very excited about the three new players joining our program from our 2007 recruiting class. We really attacked our needs this year with the three players joining our program. All are capable of contributing right away.
“Plus, we get Julius Powell back after an injury plagued sophomore year. He had surgery to correct some knee problems after the season and should be back to full strength. Thus, we lost one scholarship player but gain four when you count a healthy Julius Powell. I haven’t looked at us as a deep team previously, but we have a chance to be very deep this year.”
While the Tigers have many positives entering the preseason, there are some question marks.
“The point guard position is certainly our main question,” said Purnell. “We have experience in the backcourt, especially on the perimeter. Cliff Hammonds has played the point position as a starter and reserve over the last three years. He has an excellent assist/turnover ratio, among the best in the ACC last year. K.C. Rivers has also logged some time at the point guard position.
“We will take a long look at Demontez Stitt in the preseason. He was Mr. Basketball in the state of North Carolina and he has the ability to be a fine point guard in the ACC. Terrence Oglesby played some point in high school, but his long range shooting ability can stretch a defense from the wing.
“Overall, we need the returning players to have career best years. Chemistry needs to be a strength of this team. We need to shoot better from the foul line, and thus win more close games. We had a lot of close games last year (ACC high 10 games decided by five points or less in conference play) and we won some of those games, but we need to win a few more to make that next step.”
Clemson has two returning double figure scorers in the backcourt and wing positions in Rivers and Hammonds. They have combined to play 168 games and scored over 1,800 points. Both are already in the top 10 in Clemson history in three-point goals, as Hammonds is fourth with 184 and Rivers is ninth with 132.
Rivers averaged a team-best 14.0 points per game in 2006-07 as a part-time starter. Referred to as “the best sixth man in college basketball” by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas at midseason last year, Rivers came off the bench for the first 26 games, then started the last 10. His scoring average was the second-highest in Clemson history for a non-starter. He led the team in three-point goals with 88 and in three-point percentage with a .395 figure. Also a capable rebounder, Rivers pulled in 4.5 per game and had just 44 turnovers in 36 games.
“K.C. is one of the better returning players in the nation in my opinion,” said Purnell. “He is one of the best all-around players in the ACC. He has proven over the last two years that he can beat you many different ways, be it with a three-point shot, or a drive to the basket like he did in the final moments of the win at Virginia Tech. He is also a capable rebounder, as he showed in the NIT against East Tennessee State (when he had a career high 14 rebounds). We saw it many times last year, when he is playing well, we are playing well as a team.”
Rivers was a key to Clemson’s 17-0 start last year when he scored in double figures in all 17 games. His 29-point performance against Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the NIT was the top game of his career from a scoring standpoint and the most points by a Clemson player in a postseason tournament game in 20 years.
Hammonds is the most experienced player on Clemson’s veteran team with an even 100 games played, 99 as a starter and 3,123 career minutes through the end of his junior year. He enters the 2007-08 season with 1,077 career points, the 11th-highest total in Clemson history for a player by the end of his junior season.
A double figure scorer in each of his first three seasons, Hammonds showed great improvement in terms of his ball handling last year and finished the year second in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio. He also had more steals than turnovers in 2006-07, the first Tiger to accomplish that feat since Greg Buckner in 1996-97. He was named the team’s MVP last year as a junior, one of six awards he won at the team banquet.
“Cliff has started at three different positions for us. He is an outstanding defender, has had big scoring games at critical times and has made big shots (game winner at Florida State much to the delight of his family from nearby Cairo, GA). He is truly an under-appreciated player by everyone with the exception of his teammates and coaches, who see what he does every day in practice. He is one of the most respected players I have ever coached. He is playing for Athletes in Action this summer in Taiwan and that experience will benefit him greatly as he prepares for an outstanding senior year.”
Hammonds will be in his second year as a team captain. He has made the All-ACC Academic team twice in the last three years and is on schedule to graduate as a double major in architecture and psychology. When he earns the degree in architecture he will become the first scholarship basketball player at Clemson on record to earn a degree in that academic discipline.
Sam Perry is another returning starter from last year’s team. A strong defender and team leader, he averaged 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. He started 14 of the 16 ACC games and many times was charged with defending the opposition’s top offensive player. Now a senior, Perry is a veteran of 100 games, 62 as a starter.
“Sam Perry brings outstanding energy and experience to our basketball program. He has been a strong contributor as a starter and off the bench. He is a stopper on defense who is very important to our overall team chemistry.”
David Potter is another wing player who will make significant contributions to the Tigers in 2007-08. The sophomore averaged just 2.5 points per game last year, but came on strong at the end of the year, especially in the five games of the NIT. He made 8-15 shots from the field in that national tournament, including a huge putback in the win over Syracuse and an important three-pointer in the win over Air Force.
“David really made strides in the NIT last year. He gained confidence with that extra practice time and games, and that will serve him well as he prepares for his sophomore year.”
A pair of scholarship newcomers will compete for playing time in 2007-08. Demontez Stitt was Mr. Basketball in the state of North Carolina last year when he averaged 24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and six steals at Butler High School in Matthews, NC. Terence Oglesby is a 6-2 guard from Cleveland, TN who averaged 26.4 points and six assists as a senior at Bradley Central High School. He shot 44 percent from three-point range and helped his team to a 33-5 record in 2006-07.
Original walk-ons Matt Morris and Jesse Yanutola are two more returning lettermen who will contribute in the backcourt. Morris played in 21 games last year and scored 38 points, including 8-21 shooting on three-point shots. He has scored 57 points in the last three years, among the top point totals in Clemson history for a walk-on. Yanutola scored three points in eight games last year.
A plus for Clemson in its preparation for the season in the backcourt will be a Labor Day weekend trip to the Bahamas. “We are eagerly anticipating the start of the season and its preparation. We will be playing in a tournament in the Bahamas over Labor Day weekend and that will enable us to have 10 days of practice in August prior to that tournament. We have planned for this trip over the last few years because we knew we would be a veteran team, but one that would be looking for a point guard in light of Vernon’s graduation.”
Clemson has two returning starters and five returning lettermen in the frontcourt this season. The list of frontcourt players is led by senior James Mays and sophomore Trevor Booker, two of the most athletic frontcourt players to wear a Clemson uniform in the last 10 years.
Mays averaged 12.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, third in scoring and tied for first in rebounds, on the Tigers’ 2006-07 team. Mays has developed into one of the top all-around frontcourt players in the ACC. He added 69 steals and 95 assists last year, Clemson single-season records for frontcourt players in those important statistical areas.
Mays tested the NBA draft market last summer, but decided to return to Clemson after going through the NBA Pre-Draft camp in Orlando. It was an experience that will benefit Mays and some future NBA team.
“James made a wise decision to explore his options concerning the NBA Draft in May and June,” said Purnell. “He took advantage of the opportunity, gathered as much information as he could and made a good decision to return to Clemson. The feedback he received indicated that another year of college basketball would be beneficial to his long range NBA goals.
“He did very well at the NBA camp in Orlando and got the attention of the NBA scouts from the first scrimmage when he had 13 points and nine rebounds. He showed his versatility and that is one of the major assets of his game.
“He has incredible quickness for his size and can do a variety of things on the court. He is a unique basketball talent in that he has quickness, length and can affect the outcome of the game in so many different areas.
“James made great strides last year in a number of areas, especially passing. He also improved as a shooter, rebounder, and defender and we look for him to take another step in those areas as a senior. He will continue to add more elements to his game, just as he added the passing element as a junior.”
Booker was one of the most exciting freshmen in a deep class of ACC newcomers last year. The 6-7 center averaged 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He led the team in blocked shots with 78 and ranked fourth in the nation among freshmen, and fifth among players 6-7 or shorter. His scoring total, rebound total, field goal percentage (team best .602), and blocked shots total were all second-best in Clemson history among freshmen. He started all 36 games last year, the most starts in school history for a freshman.
“Trevor had an outstanding freshman year, but with another year in the strength and conditioning area he will develop other parts of his game. He is a terrific shot blocker and will make the opposition change their attack. He has an outstanding outside shot, but also can play on the inside. I am really looking forward to see what he does in his second year.”
Raymond Sykes is another veteran frontcourt player who will see significant playing time in the Clemson lineup in 2007-08. The junior from Florida averaged 2.1 points and 1.9 rebounds as a sophomore when he shot 60.8 percent from the field and blocked 36 shots. He ranked in the top 10 of the ACC in blocked shots per game even though he played just 11 minutes per game. He is also capable of thunderous dunks that bring the Littlejohn Coliseum crowd to its feet (see ESPN SportsCenter after the Syracuse game last year).
“Raymond came on strong at the end of the year and gives us another strong inside defensive presence. He can disrupt an opposing team’s offense and he can be a force on the glass. He showed improvement on offense and has the ability to get the crowd going with one of his dunks.”
Powell is back in the Clemson lineup after a difficult sophomore year when he had problems elevating on his jump shot due to knee problems. The 6-7 player who is capable of playing on the wing or inside, was a force from the outside as a freshman when he made 31 three-point goals, including key shots in wins at Penn State and Georgia Tech.
But, last year he scored just 2.6 points per game and missed 11 games due to a knee injury. Off-season surgery has hopefully brought him back to his old self. He was healthy for the December 2 game against South Carolina in Columbia and scored 13 points in just 22 minutes on 5-8 shooting, including 3-5 on three-point shots in Clemson’s victory. But he never played more than 10 minutes in a game after January 10.
Karolis Petrukonis is a fifth returning lettermen in the frontcourt. The sophomore from Lithuania scored 10 points and had 13 rebounds in 13 games last year as a reserve true center. He is playing for the Lithuanian junior national team this summer and that experience should help his preparation for the 2007-08 season.
Jerai Grant is the only newcomer to Clemson’s roster among frontcourt players. The 6-9 graduate of famed DeMatha High School in Washington, DC averaged a double-double for that program last year and is also an accomplished shot blocker. He was selected to the Capital Classic and Charm City Challenge all-star games following his senior season. He is the son of former Tiger Harvey Grant and nephew of former Clemson All-American Horace Grant.
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