Clemson University

Tigers get shot at NCAA glory

TAMPA, Fla. -- Five seconds left in the NCAA tournament championship, and an adolescent Cliff Hammonds peeks at the imaginary scoreboard to confirm his team trails by one.

Four seconds, three ... Hammonds, a left-hander, counts aloud as he executes a crossover dribble to separate from his invisible defender.

He steps back and shoots a distant jumper an instant before emitting his horn impersonation -- a scene repeated at the numerous driveway hoops Hammonds had as a member of a military family.

"I used to hit it to win the title for (North) Carolina," Hammonds said. "Now I'm hoping it beats Carolina in the Final Four."

To Clemson fans, today's 9:50 p.m. first-round game against No. 12 seed Villanova (20-12) spells the venerable end to a decade-long tournament drought as well as perhaps the triumphant turning point for fifth-year coach Oliver Purnell's rebuilding efforts.

Yet for the fifth-seeded Tigers (24-9), this first shining moment represents the chance to participate in a phenomenon they have only watched -- and mimicked -- from afar.

That the typically clichéd Hammonds, a senior guard and the team's unabashed leader, had already mapped Clemson's rout to UNC suggests the Tigers are not content to merely making a token appearance.

"We had a great season. Now it's over," Hammonds said. "We had a great tournament. Now it's over.

"We haven't won any championships and we haven't accomplished our major goals. So I think we're one of the hungriest teams in the country."

More than a few eyebrows were raised in the preseason when Purnell declared a national title an immediate goal, especially considering the Tigers had not even posted a .500 ACC record since 1997.

Even now, it seems a stretch; the champion must win six in a row to hoist the crown, and Clemson had failed to collect as many as three straight wins since nonconference play until beating Virginia Tech in the season finale and Boston College and Duke in the ACC tourney.

On the other hand, the Tigers are widely viewed as a trendy pick to give No. 1 seed Kansas a run for its money in the Sweet 16.

Such potential is why Purnell foresaw the need to set Clemson's bar higher than most figured reality.

"It's my job to guide our players and, for the most part, tell them what I believe to be the truth," Purnell said. "Our players get a lot of messages from fans, from friends, from media, and I think I know our team best of anyone. I wanted to make sure they understood the kind of confidence I had in them and the kinds of goals I think they should be shooting for and capable of reaching.

"A lot of it was to get them to believe, just like our seniors believed four years ago when I'm sure people were telling them they couldn't win at Clemson. They believed us, but they believed us because that's what we told them."

To that end, Purnell has downplayed Clemson's lack of experience in the NCAA tournament relative to other teams in their pod. Fourth-seeded Vanderbilt is making its second straight appearance, while Villanova is at its fourth in a row -- albeit largely on the strength of NBA guards Randy Foye, Allen Ray and Kyle Lowry.

The Tigers believe they probably possess more tournament experience than their competition thanks to last year's surge to the NIT final.

"This team has been through so much," senior forward James Mays said. "That's why I think we can do great things in this tournament."

• Clemson gameday • 2C