With the return of four starters and eight lettermen from a team that had a winning 2002-03 campaign, plus the addition of three talented newcomers, the cupboard is not bare for first-year Clemson Head Coach Oliver Purnell. His new team returns players who accounted for nearly 60 percent of the scoring, 65 percent of the rebounding, 74 percent of the steals, 64 percent of the three-point goals and 65 percent of the playing time.
A successful 2003-04 season could lead to long term success, as the current roster includes just one scholarship senior, frontcourt standout Chris Hobbs. The list of current Tigers also includes returning starters Sharrod Ford at center, Olu Babalola at small forward and Chey Christie at guard, giving Clemson a returning junior starter at each basic position.
"After watching some game tapes and working directly with our returning players during individual workouts, I have been impressed with our athleticism, especially in the frontcourt," said Purnell who replaced Larry Shyatt on April 6th. "We have players who have been through the wars in this league and that is important. We have some overall team experience and that will be a strength of this team."
While Purnell has never been a head coach in the ACC, he certainly has a frame of reference. He grew up following ACC basketball as a youth residing in the state of Maryland, then as a player on a Division II National Championship team at Old Dominion. His coaching resume included a three-year stint as an assistant coach at Maryland. Last year, as the head coach of a Dayton team that was a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and won the Atlantic 10 Championship.
"Our inside people have the ability to compete at this level. After seeing tapes of Clemson play against Duke and Cincinnati (who Dayton also played in 2002-03), I think our frontline will matchup athletically. Obviously Chey Christie is a quality guard who has been around the block, and he will be a key to anchoring our backcourt."
Clemson fans and ACC media are interested to follow Purnell's approach. Opposing coaches have given testimony to his abilities, especially when it comes to pregame preparation and strategy against a more talented opponent. He is a coach that has a history of adapting his style to his personnel, but he does have some basic tenets for success that will be impressed upon his first Clemson team.
"We will be a team that will depend on defense and rebounding. We are going to look to run every time we get the numbers. We want to be a team that makes a good decision on when to run and when not to run.
"A key will be taking care of the basketball, not beating ourselves with turnovers or by taking bad shots. There are some good transition teams in this league, so it will be important to get back on defense. We played Duke last year (as Dayton coach) and we know how they can get up and down the floor, so transition defense will be important.
"We will work on our press defense the first week of practice. That is like throwing guys into the water to see what kind of swimming instincts they have. Pressing instinct is important in determining whether of not we will press. We will determine early in preseason practice if we have players who have the quickness and instincts as anticipators. We won't be able to determine that until we go through practice."
One of the most obvious changes in Clemson offensively will be its basic offensive set. Purnell teams use an inside-out passing game, a change from recent Clemson teams that were perimeter oriented in their attack. Clemson frontcourt players had just 47 assists in 28 games a year ago. In Purnell's system, that group could have that many assists by midseason.
"I have always played the game in the halfcourt from an inside out approach. You throw the ball in, you draw the defense in, you put pressure on the defense, draw double teams and create open shots. When the ball goes up you hit the offensive glass. Over the course of a 40-minute game it just causes defensive problems."
From the defensive standpoint, the Tigers will be multiple. "We will use zone defenses, but it will not be the basis of what we do. People went away from the zone a few years ago, but it is becoming more and more prominent. Syracuse's success with a zone defense in its drive to the national championship last year probably will put it in vogue this year. We like to use a man-to-man when possible from a matchup standpoint."
From an overall team goals standpoint, Purnell's approach to bringing Clemson back to postseason play for the first time since 1998-99 will begin from the mental aspect of the game. "I want this team to be mentally tough, the kind of team that can sustain toughness for 40 minutes. We want a team that fights for every loose ball and every rebound.
"I am going to tell our guys that our goal is to win every game that we can. I want them to go into every game with the idea that we can win and that we are going to do everything we can to achieve that victory. Overall, I want this team to show improvement over the course of the season. If we are mentally tough and show improvement as the season progresses, then everything will take care of itself."
While Clemson returns four starters from the 2002-03 team, it must replace its top player from a year ago, point guard Edward Scott. Clemson's first point guard to make first-team All-ACC in 43 years, Scott's leadership and court savvy will be missed, as will has 17.7 points and 5.8 assists per game, figures that ranked in the top five in the ACC in both categories. He concluded his career with 1226 points, 595 assists and 433 rebounds, one of nine players in ACC history with 1000 points, 500 assists and 400 rebounds in a career.
"Replacing Edward Scott is one our biggest questionmarks heading into the preseason," said Purnell, who had a history of developing outstanding point guards during his career at Dayton.
"We have a few possibilities we will experiment with in the preseason. Shawan Robinson could start there and we could rotate him with Chey Christie, who has played some point here and in high school. Vernon Hamilton is a freshman who has some outstanding credentials. Rarely do you have a Kenny Anderson or a Phil Ford come into your program, but I am not against playing a freshman at point guard.
"I don't like the thought of rotating three guys at the point. Most coaches would rather have one point guard that you give the ball to in November and tell him to run the show for the season. But, that doesn't happen very often. The next best scenario would be to have one play at that position for 25 to 28 minutes a game and have a backup play 10-15 minutes.
Christie is Clemson's leading returning scorer after connecting at a 11.5 rate as a sophomore who started 27 of the 28 games a year ago. The 6-4 guard played 31.6 minutes per game as Scott's runningmate, hitting 69 percent from the foul line and 40.1 percent from the field. He has been working hard in the offseason on his outstanding shooting and looks to improve on his 29 percent three-point accuracy of a year ago.
Christie, the brother of Tony Christie, who played on three Clemson NCAA teams under Rick Barnes and an NIT finalist under Larry Shyatt, has some defensive quickness and ranked seventh in the ACC in steals/game. He had brilliant games at times last year, including a 25 point performance in a victory over Georgia Tech and an efficient 16-point outing in a victory at Virginia. He had just 59 turnovers in 28 games and joined Scott as prime reasons Clemson led the ACC in fewest turnovers per game a year ago.
Shawan Robinson, a 6-2 backcourt player from Raleigh, set a Clemson freshman record for three-point shooting percentage with a .475 figure. His 28-59 accuracy on long distance shots was the third best percentage in school history regardless of class, second best from the 19-9 distance. With Scott's graduation, Robinson's playing time will increase dramatically from its 13.3 minutes per game.
"Shawan Robinson has shown an ability in ACC competition to knock down outside shots. That is something we need, especially with our inside-out approach on offense." Robinson made 73 percent of his free throws, shot 45 percent from the field overall and led the team in steals per minute, gaining a theft every 15.5 minutes of playing time. He closed his freshman season in grand style with 14 points in just 20 minutes against Florida State in the ACC Tournament. A 4.5 scorer for the season, Robinson made 4-5 three-point goals on the ACC's grand stage in Greensboro.
Two incoming freshmen are slated for playing time as point or wing guards. Vernon Hamilton, a 5-11 native of Richmond, VA, and Jimmy Hudson a 6-3 native of Eustis, FL, both figure in Purnell's plans this year. Walk-on senior Beau Shay is also a veteran who will make a contribution to the team this year.
Hamilton, no relation to former Clemson All-ACC guard Vincent Hamilton (1980-85), was a two-time all-state player in basketball and football during his career at Benedictine High in Richmond. A national top 100 recruit by some services, he scored 24.1 points, 7.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game as a senior when he led Benedictine to its first ever state championship. He was named MVP of the state tournament after scoring 66 points in the semifinals and finals combined.
Hudson averaged 14.8 points, 7.5 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game for Eustis High in Florida last year. He made 80 percent of his free throws and 38 percent of his three point shots in helping his team to the Class 3A regional finals for the second straight season. He was a two-time second-team all-state selection during his career.
Olu Babalola, Julian Betko and Lamar Rice are three players who figure to battle for significant playing time at the small forward position. Babalola and Rice also could play in the frontcourt depending on alignments and matchups throughout the coming season.
Babalola was voted the team's top defensive player last year and was a big reason Clemson improved its scoring defense in conference games by 14 points per game last year as compared to the 2001-02 season. Assigned to a variety of players of all shapes and sizes, Babalola finished with 34 steals from his small forward position, a starting role he held in 26 of the 28 games last year.
The 6-6, 255-pound powerful athlete was third on the Clemson team in scoring last year with a 7.6 points per game average. He also contributed 3.7 rebounds per game and shot 42.3 percent from the field. His offensive game improved over the course of the season, including a 17-point performance at Georgia Tech in the final regular season game when he made 7-9 field goals. His top moment of the season came at home against Virginia when he made two free throws with 5.7 seconds left to give Clemson a 78-77 victory.
"With his size, strength and ability to defend in the open court, I can envision Olu playing the three and four positions this year. He really could defend players at three different positions. Just watching him on tape, that is something that jumps out to me about him. We need a quality player who can swing from one position to another."
Betko scored 1.9 points per game last year when he played just 10 minutes per game. A streak shooter in practice and at times in games, Betko could see significant playing time if he shows consistency in knocking down shots. The native of Slovakia played his high school basketball in Sharon, PA. "We need outside shooting, so Julian will have a great opportunity to be a valuable asset to this team. We also will need him to penetrate and make plays as a passer to the post."
Rice has been at Clemson since last January, but is an unknown quantity. He sat out last season after two successful seasons at Mott Community College near Detroit. He averaged 16 points and seven rebounds and shot 57 percent from the field in his final season. An honorable mention Junior College All-American, Rice was named to the National Junior College All-Tournament team each of his two years at Mott, who finished 65-8 for the two seasons Rice was in the lineup.
Two starters and four lettermen return to lead the Clemson post players. Based on his coaching history, Purnell hopes to use all four on a rotating basis. "We used a four-player scheme in the frontcourt at Dayton and I would love to continue that at Clemson," said Purnell. "The use of all four will be a function of the progression of Steve Allen and Akin Akingbala. But, just watching the tapes tells us that they have the physical ability to contribute."
Chris Hobbs and Sharrod Ford are the returning starters at the strong forward and center positions respectively. They both had a significant impact on Clemson's 9-0 start last year, but were less prominent in the second half of the season when the offense seemed to revolved around Scott.
Hobbs, the only senior on the Clemson roster among scholarship players, averaged 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a junior. A double digit scorer as a freshman, Hobbs shot 51 percent from the field last year, but took just 4.7 shots per game from the field. For his career he has made 54 percent of his shots from the field, 11th best in Clemson history. He enters his senior year with 745 career points and 599 career rebounds.
Ford led the team in field goal percentage and rebounding and finished fourth in scoring in 2002-03. A 56.4 percent field goal shooter for the year, he averaged 7.5 points per game. He led Clemson in rebounding in 13 games and finished sixth in the ACC in offensive rebounds per game, eighth in overall rebounding. For his career, the 6-9 junior has made 58 percent of his shots, a figure that would rank fourth in Clemson history if he had enough made field goals to qualify. He needs 52 more to be included on the list.
Akingbala is a sophomore who played just 65 minutes as a reserve behind 2002-03 seniors Ray Henderson and Tomas Nagys. He made 6 of his 9 field goal attempts and scored 14 total points in his 13 appearances. He has the build and timing of a shot blocker and could be a defensive force on the inside. Allen red-shirted the 2002-03 season after playing in five games as a first-year freshman in 2001-02.
Clemson Basketball Outlook 2003-04
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