Clemson, South Carolina men's basketball teams take differing approaches

Veteran Tigers focus on standings, young Gamecocks on court

The (Columbia) StateFebruary 25, 2009 

COLUMBIA -- One team has been here before. The other is swimming in uncharted waters. Thus, the opposite approaches to big games for Clemson's Oliver Purnell and South Carolina's Darrin Horn.

As Purnell's Tigers head into the home stretch of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season, starting with tonight's home game against Virginia Tech, he wants his experienced team to know exactly where it stands in the league race. It needs to know where it is headed.

As Horn's Gamecocks approach USC's biggest game in at least a decade tonight against Kentucky, he wants his team's entire focus on that game, not on the Southeastern Conference standings. Those are distractions.

"We keep them in tune, talk to them about them all the time," Purnell said of the ACC standings, where 12th-ranked Clemson is locked in a second-place tie with Duke and Florida State.

Purnell goes so far as to print the standings on a grease board outside the team's locker room at Littlejohn Coliseum prior to practices. Other times, he distributes the standings on sheets of paper.

"That's part of the fun of this thing, that you're in a league race," Purnell said. "And it's great to be talked about as being involved this time of year."

Of course, Purnell's team better understands how to deal with the attention. Most of the players on this season's club formed the core of a team that finished third in the ACC a year ago, reached the league tournament championship game and played in the NCAA tournament.

With a seasoned team, the chances of it losing focus along the way are greatly diminished. It also helps that Clemson, with its 22-4 record and 8-4 standing in the ACC, is virtually assured a berth in the NCAA tournament.

So, while Clemson still aims to win the ACC regular-season title, it also realizes the importance of each remaining game for postseason seeding. Finishing in the top four ensures a first-round bye in the league tournament, and a strong finish most certainly will ensure Clemson a high NCAA tournament seeding.

"First of all, you'd like to be the regular-season champion," Purnell said. "Second of all, it gives you the best seed and best times to play in the tournament. ... Then, how about NCAA tournament seeding? That's what I'm talking about. Every game you win, I assume, affects your seeding situation."

With that kind of talk from the coach, it is not surprising to hear Clemson players talk after games about conference standings, national rankings and tournament seedings.

By contrast, USC players deflect all talk on any subject they consider out of their control, such as the SEC standings.

"I don't really pay attention to it, but that's all people talk about," guard Devan Downey said.

"I have no idea where we're at," forward Evka Baniulis said. "I know we're not in the bottom. We try not to pay attention as much as possible because we just know it's a distraction and we don't need that."

Even Horn admits he was unaware of a four-way tie for first place last week among USC, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC East. He says he had not checked the previous day's scores.

He says it also is a matter of focus, for himself and for his team, whose members were too young to remember the last time (1998) USC flirted with first place this late in the regular season.

"Every place has its own distractions for various reasons," Horn says. "I think one of the keys, and challenges, in coaching is keeping young people focused on what you have to do and staying away from distractions."

With a group of players who have never experienced a title chase, Horn believes any talk of championships, standings and NCAA tournament possibilities is just that -- talk. That takes care of itself if his team focuses solely on improving with each practice and with each game.

"For us to be successful, we've got to stay focused on the things that make us good," he says. "We can't control standings in terms of where they're going to be three weeks from now.

"All you can control is the next game and how you work every day. That's a mind-set and an attitude we want in our program."

Horn and his team will take that attitude into tonight's showdown against Kentucky at Colonial Life Arena. If Florida loses tonight at LSU, a USC win against Kentucky would put the Gamecocks in sole possession of first place in the SEC East.

Don't tell Horn or his players, though.

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