Clemson University

Purnell not worried about Tigers bouncing back from UNC loss

Clemson's James Mays tips in a shot above UNC's Danny Green during the first half of the ACC title game Sunday.
Clemson's James Mays tips in a shot above UNC's Danny Green during the first half of the ACC title game Sunday.

CLEMSON -- Of all the areas coach Oliver Purnell could be concerned about before Clemson's first NCAA tournament trip in a decade, he worries least about the Tigers' psyche.

After each of its previous five losses, Clemson's veteran-laden squad has rebounded with a win to avoid the prolonged slumps Purnell warned about.

"I fully expect we'll bounce back and play well and hard," Purnell said. "That's what we've done all year long. Most particularly after a loss, we've found a way to dig down. That is a characteristic that should serve us well."

As the fifth-seeded Tigers (24-9) prepare for their first-round game against 12th-seeded Villanova (20-12), here are five keys to Clemson's NCAA tournament success and how they apply to its bracket matchups:

PRESS ON

The Tigers' press packages produced diminished returns as the ACC season wore on for one main reason: Opponents have scouted other league members ad nausem and know the Xs and Os of breaking Clemson's presses.

Last year's run to the NIT finals showed how effective its press can be when teams are preparing for it on short notice.

And in contrast to a year ago, Clemson's players appeared to have fresher legs down the stretch, a byproduct of having four reliable bench reserves.

Application: Villanova went 0-4 against the Big East teams that press most (Marquette, Georgetown and Louisville) and barely beat a Seton Hall team at home still learning the concept. So the Wildcats figure to get a heavy dose considering combo guard Scottie Reynolds is their only steady ball-handler. Clemson's press might be better served against No. 4 seed Vanderbilt than guard-centric No. 13 Siena in a potential second-round matchup, although both pose a 3-point threat in transition.

KEEP BOOKER OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE

The biggest drawback to pressing is that it leaves center Trevor Booker exposed at the back end, contributing to Booker's foul trouble at season's end.

Yet Clemson got a flashback to what a burden-free Booker could do in the ACC tournament when he avoided picking up two first-half fouls in any of the three games. He overpowered opponents, averaging 12.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.3 blocks while shooting 56.3 percent.

Application: Villanova tries to use the quickness of its 6-foot-8 forwards to keep strong interior teams from getting the ball inside. Clemson should have a favorable inside matchup until a possible Sweet 16 showdown with No. 1-seeded Kansas.

HAVE A 3-POINT PRESENCE

Clemson plays crisper and is a greater offensive threat in the halfcourt game when either K.C. Rivers or Terrence Oglesby feels the hot hand from 3-point range.

Rivers is prone to fading into the background if he does not get an initial rhythm or early easy basket. He must look to create his own shot more often.

Oglesby is a dead-on shooter with his feet set and body balanced. But his penchant for playing too emotionally and getting beat defensively makes it hard to leave him in the game.

Application: Villanova coach Jay Wright has always traded offensive freedom for defensive intensity, but these Wildcats ranked 14th out of 16 Big East teams in 3-point defense (37.0 percent). None of the teams in Clemson's pod boasts a standout perimeter defender.

STOP THE BALL

Most tight NCAA tournament games come down to which team can execute or defend this staple play in the closing minutes -- when the offense's best player off the dribble manufactures a shot from the top of the key with the help of a screen.

Guards from Duke and North Carolina exploited Clemson's defenders last weekend for uncontested drives down the lane, exposing a gaping deficiency when any post player other than James Mays is defending the perimeter screen.

Application: Villanova (Scottie Reynolds), and Siena (Kenny Hasbrouck) both have multi-faceted scoring guards who would have carte blanche to create at game's end. Because Shan Foster is Vanderbilt's go-to guy, predicting what the Commodores would do might be trickier.

MAKE TIMELY FREE THROWS

Clemson has won its share of close games with timely foul shooting, uncharacteristic of its overall season percentage (.627).

That said, the Tigers usually go to extremes, either making them all in clutch moments (see the ACC semifinal against Duke) or none (any of three UNC losses).

Application: Who knows with this bunch? Villanova (72.3) and Vanderbilt (73.6) both rank among their conference's best free-throw shooters, while Siena (68.3) is average.

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