Up-and-down Clemson men's basketball team trying to find a bit of consistency

The Associated PressFebruary 10, 2009 

Clemson's Trevor Booker reacts after a dunk Saturday against Florida State. The Tigers squandered a double-digit lead and lost the game just a few days after a rout of Duke.

MARY ANN CHASTAIN • THE ASSOCIATED PRES

CLEMSON -- Here we go again.

After a week like few others in Clemson history, the Tigers can't be sure if they're the dominating powerhouse that handed Duke its worst loss in 19 years last Wednesday or the cold-shooting club that was outscored 23-4 down the stretch and gave back a 19-point lead in a defeat to Florida State three nights later.

Coach Oliver Purnell is counting on the former, although he understands how puzzling his Tigers appear.

"Now, we've got to bounce back," he said Monday.

Purnell certainly wasn't prepping those postgame remarks midway through Saturday night's game.

The Tigers (19-3, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) were ahead 44-25 and cruising to what was expected to be their fourth straight victory. Coupled with that stunning 74-47 Blue Devil beatdown, Clemson figured to move higher up the top 10 and stamp itself a serious threat in next month's NCAA tournament.

But by the time the Seminoles danced off the bench and onto the Littlejohn Coliseum court following their remarkable, 65-61 comeback victory, the college basketball world has the same questions about the Tigers schizophrenic play as it had the past few seasons.

Voters dropped the Tigers two spots to No. 12 in the latest rankings Monday.

They have gone 3-3 since starting the season 16-0. What looked like a glide path to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference has now become a rugged trail filled with land mines and barbwire.

It's not too different than 2007 when Clemson was the last of the nation's unbeaten Division I teams, going 17-0 before losing. However, the Tigers dropped nine of their next 11 games.

One game in Clemson's stretch of failure two years back looked eerily similar to the Florida State defeat.

Against Virginia that season, 19th-ranked Tigers were up 61-45 with 8:47 to go. Then the Cavaliers went on a shocking 19-2 run to steal victory. It took the Tigers several weeks to recover. By then, they had slid from surefire, NCAA tournament lock to the NIT.

The collapse had analysts and experts tagging the Tigers as frauds, not a bad team but certainly not ready for the big boy basketball played in the ACC.

It didn't help the program's image last season when fifth-seeded Clemson dropped its first NCAA tournament game in a decade to Villanova.

Purnell has taken great pride in how his team as improved each of his six seasons since arriving from Dayton. He's confident the determination, enthusiasm and skill they displayed in beating Duke -- the 27-point loss was the program's worst since a 30-point defeat to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA title game -- is there in abundance despite the Florida State fold.

"Certainly, this team is better all around than the team we had two years ago," Purnell said.

Purnell met with his players Sunday before practice, a session that was part strategic and part therapeutic. "We just really talked about how we were feeling, the emotions that we were feeling after the (Florida State) game and after last week," Purnell said.

Then the team followed with a lively, hard-working practice to prepare for Tuesday's night game at Boston College (18-7, 6-4). While not quite Chapel Hill, where the Tigers are 0-54 alltime, the Eagles' Chestnut Hill has also proved troublesome -- Clemson has lost all three games there.

Clemson senior swingman K.C. Rivers says the team's plan is simple: Tap into the attitude and fire it carried against Duke.

"Man, we just got to find what we did Wednesday night, get it back and do it for the rest of the season," he said.

The Tigers and Purnell point to many assets that could keep the team humming into March. Trevor Booker is dominant under the boards, Rivers is a heady senior who go for double-digits points one night and double-digit rebounds the next, Terrence Oglesby is second in ACC 3-point shooting, and Clemson's smothering defense can disrupt even the most surehanded ballhandlers.

Halfway through the ACC season, though, Clemson is still trying to push aside its past issues to play with the league's best.

"We've got a huge challenge ahead of us," Purnell said.

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