Clemson University

Tigers have tough questions to answer after first-round exit

TAMPA, Fla. -- James Mays closed his eyes and tilted back against the cinderblock wall behind his locker room chair.

Mays then leaned forward, smacking the back of his head twice as if trying to awaken.

Nope, this was not just a bad dream.

Amid the sense of shock and disappointment in Clemson's locker room early Saturday morning, teammates watched with remorse as the trio of seniors -- Mays, Cliff Hammonds and Sam Perry -- fielded the majority of media questions about how their careers had come to a premature close with their first-round tournament loss to Villanova.

"This is a team that did impossible things, proved a lot of doubters wrong and came from the bottom up," Mays said, trying vainly to find perspective in an otherwise blurry moment.

Sophomore center Trevor Booker said that sullen feeling will be the driving offseason force to make Clemson's NCAA tournament appearances the norm, not the exception.

Five questions for the Tigers as they look to the 2008-09 season:

• 1. Can they duplicate this year's successes?

Maybe, but there are justifiable reasons to predict their third-place finish will be tougher to repeat.

Clemson returns some nice pieces around all-ACC candidates Booker and senior guard K.C. Rivers.

Problem is, their chief competitors this past year in the league probably will not suffer near the substantial personnel departures that Mays and guard Cliff Hammonds represent.

Miami returns all its key components assuming Jack McClinton does not go pro. Virginia Tech was basically a freshman class wrapped around rising senior wing A.D. Vassallo, while Wake Forest welcomes three top-25 recruits to its collection of sophomores and freshmen.

Anything less than an NCAA bid will be a letdown, but a finish within the ACC's top five should be construed as successful, too.

• 2. How effective will the press be without Mays?

For all of Mays' faults, players with his combo of size and agility are few and far between, making him the perfect disrupter at the front of Clemson's diamond press and thus virtually impossible to replace.

It will be interesting to see how comfortable Purnell grows with either Raymond Sykes or Jerai Grant in Mays' slot.

Both have the length to deflect passes, but neither moves as well laterally, a necessity for trapping the dribbler. Plus neither yet possesses the ball skills to quickly convert turnovers into easy baskets.

Perhaps the Tigers' most encouraging news for their press is the expected forthcoming commitment from slender 6-9 Pinewood Prep standout Milton Jennings for its 2009-10 class.

• 3. How will Rivers handle the leadership mantle?

Hammonds was Clemson's glue, contributing tangibles and intangibles the team lacked elsewhere -- namely, lockdown perimeter defense and a steadying influence during its numerous down-to-the-wire contests.

Rivers inherits the latter responsibility, whether it fits his laid-back persona or not.

There is no question Rivers will again be an all-ACC caliber scorer. But the next and arguably final step in his offensive maturation is honing the take-charge presence when the Tigers are facing adversity or need a bucket with the shot clock winding down. He began flashing such abilities down the stretch, but he must exhibit them on a consistent basis next year.

• 4. Can the freshmen guards be counted on off the bench?

Two things separated this year's NCAA tournament Tigers from yesteryear's NIT finalists: improved clutch execution and lineup flexibility.

Purnell did not appear comfortable with any of his bench options the season before, but getting situational contributions from four different reserves this season bailed Clemson out of numerous predicaments.

Having Grant and pick-and-pop swingman David Potter returning takes pressure off incoming Catalin Baciu, a slender 7-1 center who is no stiff but probably not ready for major minutes against stronger ACC post players.

With point guard Demontez Stitt and sharpshooter Terrence Oglesby presumably elevated into the starting lineup, the real key will be getting spot relief from its pair of freshmen guards.

Diminutive point Andre Young needs to reliably spell Stitt so Rivers will not have to, and wing Tanner Smith figures to share perimeter minutes with Potter.

• 5. Will T.O. come to signify Terrific Offense or Taken Out?

As Oglesby's role increased during Clemson's postseason, his defensive flaws were correspondingly magnified. He is the type of player for which the hockey plus-minus stat tells the most accurate story.

Oglesby is too valuable as a shooter and passer to be limited to situational duty the rest of the career.

But whether Purnell can afford to play him 30 minutes a game will rest on whether the Tigers can afford to keep him on the floor, if he is not disqualified first.

Oglesby gives defensive effort, but he is prone to either losing focus -- and thus his man -- or simply being overwhelmed by a quicker or stronger offensive player.

His gung-ho approach is commendable, but Oglesby's main adjustment will have to be learning to rein in his emotions and discern when to take risks. Furthermore, he has to tone down the theatrics if he wants to get an official's benefit of the doubt.