Clemson University

Purnell says Tigers are title contenders

CLEMSON -- As if a message were being sent, Oliver Purnell learned the hard way that having the ACC's most veteran team will not ensure smooth sailing this year.

Purnell sprained an ankle attempting to jump over the side of his boat recently, leading Clemson's fifth-year coach to wear a brace so he can conduct today's opening practice.

The bar he has set for the Tigers appears too high as well, although there seems justification for Purnell for touting this group unlike any of its predecessors.

Four double-digit scorers return from a team that was cruising to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1998 until it suddenly floundered a quarter of the way into conference play, losing nine of 11 ACC games to nullify a 17-0 start.

Due in some measure to Clemson's resuscitation in the consolation NIT -- where it lost in the final to West Virginia -- Purnell expressed confidence this week that the Tigers have the legitimate goal of being a national title contender and can beat anyone in the country.

"We're not a dominant team by any stretch of the imagination," Purnell said. "But we have some nice pieces."

Purnell believes his wing tandem of senior glue guy Cliff Hammonds and junior sharpshooter K.C. Rivers is as talented and experienced as any.

Based on his offseason, sophomore center Trevor Booker is expected to turn heads as an unstoppable offensive force in the low post. And after testing the NBA draft waters, senior forward James Mays returned with a renewed work ethic and added 15 pounds -- which coaches hope will help him avoid another funk that, not coincidentally, paralleled the Tigers' collapse.

While Clemson is one of six ACC teams with four returning starters, its group brings back the most career starts and second-most points behind North Carolina State.

In fact, the only scholarship player lost was point guard Vernon Hamilton. Junior center Raymond Sykes is touted as the team's most improved player, and Purnell plans to tinker with using sophomore swingman David Potter as an undersized power forward to utilize his vast perimeter options.

So even though the Tigers finished tied for eighth in the ACC last season and have not produced a winning league record since 1997, there are signs this could be a breakthrough campaign.

"I kind of look at it as there's North Carolina and the rest of us," Purnell said. "We're right there in the top of the rest of us, but there's a lot of rest of us.

"We have to bust down the door to the NCAA tournament. We can't put ourselves in position to beg. We've been there two years in a row and begged, and they've said no, you can't come in yet."

Purnell said entry will likely hinge on three areas: Clemson's ability to win close games, improved free-throw shooting and the play of slender 6-2 freshman Demontez Stitt, who figures to inherit the starting point guard job.

Stitt, the state of North Carolina's reigning Mr. Basketball, is a capable scorer who already has impressed with his willingness to defer to his proven teammates.

Foul shooting would logically help the Tigers seal late-game leads, and the addition of Stitt and fellow freshman marksman Terrance Oglesby as ball-handlers -- not to mention the subtraction of Hamilton (49.0) -- are believed progress toward boosting a 57.8 free-throw percentage clip that ranked the worst in ACC history.

"Experienced teams or teams that know how to win stay the course," Purnell said. "That's where we need to be."

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