2007 Clemson Tigers
The Atlantic Coast Conference is known for its basketball prowess. For years, glory teams North Carolina, Duke, NC State, and Maryland have reigned supreme. In fact, prior to expansion, only one ACC team out of nine had never played in a Final Four.But of course, that was then. This is now. In a period of sports history in which George Mason advances to the Final Four and Boise State shocks the college football world, it makes perfect sense that the Clemson Tigers would be undefeated through fifteen games. For a program with little national success and marginal regional success, this constitutes a breakout season.
So where did this hot start come from? It starts at the top with Head Coach Oliver Purnell. The former Dayton Flyers coach moved down to Death Valley prior to the 2003-2004 season to help restore competitiveness within the ACC for the Tigers. Back-to-back NIT appearances have been the reward for the team’s improvement over the past two seasons. Purnell’s leadership has also been evident off the court, as he currently serves as President of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. It is behind such a leader that this team has grown in terms of talent, effort, and skill.
Oliver Purnell the person is a first-class man. He handles himself with dignity and class. You rarely see him upset and it seems that his goal is to make his players better both on and off the court. He treats others with respect and expects his players to do the same.
Now, on to the players. The Tigers are led by senior point guard Vernon Hamilton. A four-year starter, Hamilton is the Clemson career steals leader and was named to the first team ACC All-Defensive team last season. A former high school football star, Hamilton serves as the “quarterback” for his current hoops team. The major cog in the defensive pressure of the Tigers (more on this later), Hamilton also has a knack for hitting key shots and getting the ball to the right teammate.
The leading scorer for the Tigers is sophomore swingman K.C. Rivers. Why is this important? Besides being the leading scorer, he is also the team’s sixth man. There aren’t too many college basketball squads where the team’s leading scorer comes off the bench, let alone those inline to make the Tournament, a fact which is a tribute to the depth of the Tigers. In actuality, Rivers is one of five Tigers who average double-figure points, making him the statistical leader of a very balanced attack. However, when a big shot is needed, Rivers is probably the best pure shooter of the bunch.
In the post, junior forward James Mays and freshmen Trevor Booker bang around for a combined 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds. Mays, who sat out the second half of last season, has been especially strong for Clemson on the defensive end. Cliff Hammonds and Sam Perry complete the starting lineup for Clemson, each bringing a versatile game to the team. Hammonds, who hit the game winner at Florida State, is a terrific on-ball defender. Perry is a superb athlete who is constantly around the ball, gives all-out effort, and generally disrupts things for the opposition.
So what has made this Clemson team successful? It starts with defense. As alluded to earlier, Coach Purnell stresses solid defense and effort to his squad. The Tigers employ various forms of defensive pressure, including a frustrating diamond full-court trap. In this trap, Perry or another long-armed defender plays to top of the diamond on the in-bounds passer, pressuring the basketball. Two other wing players cover the outside of the diamond and trap the ball once it is in play. Hamilton’s job is to play the bottom of the diamond at half-court and attempt to steal the first pass made after the ball is in play, which is usually thrown out of a double-team. This is especially effective considering Hamilton was an all-state defensive back in high school. In the half-court, Purnell relies on Hamilton’s harassment on the ball and can afford to overplay on the wings due to the strong interior defense of Booker and Mays.
Thus far this season, Clemson has not suffered any key injuries. The Tigers have improved their depth from previous years, with no individual averaging more than thirty minutes per game. Non-conference wins over Georgia, at Minnesota, at South Carolina, at Old Dominion, and versus Appalachian State have helped Clemson to gain confidence while still facing decent competition. Their RPI rating will continue to improve with their ACC schedule. Plus, the Tigers have been beating their opponents handily, no matter the level of competition. The team is enjoying a plus-18 scoring margin for the season.
But there is a catch to this story. Clemson has broken fans’ hearts before. Quick starts and lofty rankings have eventually led to disappointment and losses in previous seasons. Under Coach Purnell, the Tigers have won just five ACC road games in three seasons, including their victory over Florida State to start 2007. Tough losses have been a regular occurrence, including three defeats last season when the opposition hit a three pointer to tie or win the game. This year’s squad certainly has its weaknesses as well: consistent shooting, experience winning close basketball games, and the lack of a go-to guy. It is certainly possible that the IPTAY faithful are only being setup for further heartbreak that can only be matched by the Clemson football team. Sorry, Clemson fans, low blow.
Let me make up for it: I think this year is different. This team does not seem to be caught up in the rankings and hype. They have a calm coach, a quality leadership core, and a balanced squad. While this is not a “down year” for the ACC, there is certainly no clear-cut third place team in the league. Everyone else has flaws as well, but someone has to finish third behind baby blue and royal blue. Why not Clemson? And sure, in two months, this statement could look ridiculous, but why not Clemson in the Sweet 16? Heck, if George Mason can do it…alright, let’s not get carried away. The point is, Clemson has a solid team for ’06-’07. If the Tigers can learn to win on the road and carry over their confidence into ACC play, they have a legitimate shot to dance in March.
Should the Tigers reverse their fortunes of yesteryear, rest assured that Tiger Rag will be heard loudly and often heading into the NCAA Tournament as one of this year’s surprise teams.