After Virginia loss, Clemson needs a win to silence doubters

02/17/2009 1:59 AM

02/17/2009 6:50 AM

CLEMSON -- If Trevor Booker doesn't collide with K.C. Rivers to disrupt a point-blank tap-in just before regulation expired Sunday at Virginia, Clemson isn't having this conversation.

Senior center Raymond Sykes suggests that might not be a bad thing.

Having spent nearly the entire ACC season clustered as one of the league's top three teams, the Tigers have been forced to examine themselves in the mirror after Sunday's 85-81 overtime loss at Virginia.

It hardly appears panic-button time, but they might not have much wiggle room left if they want their regular season to end on a positive note.

"If you're going to have one, this is the best time for a reality check," Sykes said.

With just one full day to recover from its worst loss of the year, No. 13 Clemson (20-4, 6-4 ACC) plays host to Maryland tonight at 7:30 p.m. seeking to secure its footing in the conference race.

On the one hand, the Tigers -- who dropped one spot in the latest AP poll -- trail a vulnerable and struggling Duke squad (7-4 ACC) by just a half-game for second place.

On the other, threatening hand, they suddenly face the prospect of plummeting from third to eighth in the league standings by the end of Wednesday's conference games.

"That's part of the fun of this thing -- that you're in a league race, and it's great to be talked about as being involved this time of year," coach Oliver Purnell said. "Obviously we'd like to be one or two games above where we are, so we're either breathing down their neck or in first.

"But we've obviously got a logjam here at that second spot behind North Carolina, and everybody's kind of vying for the upper echelon of our league. I think it speaks to the balance of our league as well as the parity."

The unlikely loss to the cellar-dwelling Cavaliers put Clemson into a four-way tie for third with Wake Forest, Florida State and Virginia Tech, with Boston College (7-5) behind by mere percentage points.

All three of the other third-place inhabitants have games this week against the bottom three ACC teams. So if the favored teams prevail and Maryland (16-8, 5-5) triumphs tonight, the Tigers would share seventh with the Terps and technically be in eighth via the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Purnell said while he hopes to avoid over-emphasizing league standings, he tries to keep players informed of the team's positioning in order to convey the implications of each outcome.

The significance of tonight's contest deals as much with perception as reality.

Win, and Clemson seemingly scoots back into a safe nook amid the ACC standings with a road game Sunday at last-place Georgia Tech to pad its cushion.

Lose, and for the first time this season, the Tigers become the hunters again instead of the hunted.

And, perhaps more importantly, they would have to deal with comparisons to their precipitous fall from midseason grace two years ago, when they started 17-0 but missed the NCAA tournament.

"If we lose, we're going to hear a lot of those questions, plus our confidence will probably go way down," junior forward Trevor Booker said. "So we want to get back on a winning streak."

There are no signs pointing to nearly as calamitous a collapse, but the Tigers would have plenty of work ahead to meet the expectations they have gradually elevated this season.

Two of five other remaining games are against the Yellow Jackets and Virginia, but the other three are all against the teams with whom they share third place.

Clemson finished third in the ACC a year ago, and it has never finished within the league's top three in back-to-back years.

Purnell believed this year's team could go above and beyond last season's rare accomplishments, but the inconsistent energy and intensity the last three games have given Purnell cause for concern.

In particular, Purnell expressed displeasure at the Tigers' increasing number of self-inflicted turnovers.

"I kind of feel like we're playing pretty well for stretches and halves, but we haven't really put a full game together probably since the Duke game, and are really in search of doing that," Purnell said.

"When you're playing in this league, where teams regularly beat up on each other, you can't afford to go long periods of time not playing well. You have to put long stretches together in games in order to put something together as far as a winning streak."

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