Clemson University

Tigers think this is the year they put end to NCAA tournament drought

As coach Oliver Purnell gets ready to open his fifth basketball season at Clemson, the so-called experts are saying this is the year the Tigers return to the NCAA tournament.

In the ACC preseason poll, the Tigers, who haven't had a winning record in the league since 1997, were picked fourth behind North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State. In the rich history of the ACC, finishing fourth means you're pretty good and guarantees a ticket to the NCAA tournament.

But even before that vote was cast in October, Purnell was already assessing his team's chances at the postseason bid that has eluded it in his previous four seasons.

"We should," he said in June, when asked if the Tigers would be in the NCAAs. "We've got a tremendous amount of experience coming back. We lost one player from a team that won 25 games. We were a team on the bubble last year and were a controversial loss in the ACC tournament from getting there.

"We expect to be better this year, and we expect to do well in the ACC."

The feeling around Clemson this year is anything short of an NCAA tournament bid will mean the season was a bust. That's a lot of pressure to put on a team, but Purnell and his players are willing to take it on.

"We feel like we've got to get that," junior guard K.C. Rivers said. "We've got a lot of goals set for ourselves. We'll take it step by step and focus on the ACC first, but the NCAA is our biggest goal."

If history is an indicator, the Tigers should be dancing in March. The last three times they've been picked fourth or higher -- 1989-90, 1996-97 and 1997-98 -- they've played in the NCAAs.

Right now, their history is a little less impressive. The Tigers and Florida State are the only teams in the tradition-rich ACC to miss the NCAAs the past nine seasons.

Purnell is hoping the team benefits from last year's run to the NIT finals, where it lost to West Virginia. After wasting a 17-0 start, rallying in the season's final two weeks, then losing in the ACC tournament's first round, it would have been understandable if the Tigers had folded like lawn chairs in the NIT.

Instead, they finished with a school-record 25 wins, and, Purnell hopes, plenty of momentum.

"Teams that have done well in the NIT," Purnell said, "usually return a lot of players. Doing what we did wouldn't be nearly as significant for a team that had a lot of seniors. In our case, we return all our players but one, and that should bode well from a confidence standpoint."

Rivers said the players learned a great deal about what's necessary to win a championship.

"I'm not saying it was a team chemistry issue, but we didn't always stay on the same page," Rivers said. "We didn't have the intensity and determination to win. When we won, we had the intensity. When we lost, we were flat. We thought we could just turn it on and off.

"The NIT showed us a lot about what it takes."

At least on paper, the Tigers seem to have just about all the pieces necessary. Purnell returns Rivers, Cliff Hammonds, James Mays and Trevor Booker to the starting lineup. The Tigers are one of six ACC teams to return four starters, but they have the most career starts and the second-most points per game.

They have proven backcourt veterans in Rivers and Hammonds, a versatile big man in Mays and a budding star inside in the 6-foot-7 Booker, who was outstanding as a freshman last year.

There's depth, quickness and defensive intensity.

"We've been trying to build a program," Purnell said, "and I'm pleased with it in terms of the progress. Our plan every year has been to get better, and we've done that."

Mays, the 6-9 senior who's the point man in the pressure defense, briefly flirted with the NBA Draft last spring but decided he needed more work and came back. He needs to work on his perimeter game and get stronger. Meanwhile, the Tigers get the benefits.

But there is one key hole that must be plugged. Vernon Hamilton, the team's MVP at point guard, graduated, and Purnell will likely go with a freshman, 6-2 Demontez Stitt, Mr. Basketball in North Carolina last year.

Unless the name's Ford or Hurley or Price or Anderson, using a freshman at the point in the meat grinder called the ACC is never a pleasing prospect.

"I'd love to have him come in and Chris Paul it," Purnell said, referring to the Wake Forest star who was sensational as a freshman. "Stitt is the guy who will get the longest look. This is what we recruited him for."

Rivers is the likely choice to step into Hamilton's leadership role and could wind up sharing point-guard duties with Hammonds if Stitt doesn't pan out. Rivers came off the bench the first 26 games. He was inserted into the starting lineup for the last 10, a move that corresponded with the Tigers getting things together for the NIT run.

"He may have been the best sixth man in the country," Purnell said. "When he hurt his back (at Maryland, Jan. 13) he started to struggle. When he started to struggle, the team struggled."

Bench or start doesn't matter to Rivers.

"I've got to be ready no matter what and go after it," he said. "That's the mindset I've got to have."

He should be the outside threat, while Booker, a 240-pound lefty with sweet low post moves and the ability to block shots and defend bigger players, should be improved inside.

"We didn't see it coming at this time last year," Purnell said, "but by the time the regular season started it was obvious he was going to be good. The thing that surprised me most was his consistency. He didn't have many ups and downs."

The Tigers return eight of their top nine players, and should also get a boost from freshmen Jerai Grant and Terrence Oglesby. While the Tigers looked deep but weren't last season, they could go 10-deep this time.

One thing Purnell hopes does not return is the team's anemic free throw shooting. The Tigers made 57.8 percent from the line, easily the worst figure in the league.

Had they made a handful of free throws here or there, they might have won a few of the seven regular-season games they lost by five or fewer points.

And had that happened, Purnell might well be talking about a making a second straight trip to the NCAAs.

"If we're just 10 percent better at the line," Purnell said, "we won 21, 22 games. With the NCAA committee, one or two can make a difference."

The Tigers hope it won't come to that this season.

"It's tournament or bust this year," Rivers said. "We have to do whatever it takes to get there."

• Sunday: Winthrop/Big South

• Monday: South Carolina/SEC

• Today: Clemson/ACC

• Wednesday: Winthrop Women/Big South

• Thursday: Randy Peele profile

• ACC preview, schedule • 3C

• Clemson roster, schedule • 4C