Tigers Making Strides Under Purnell

It speaks volumes on where the direction of the Clemson basketball program is headed after the team made another two-game improvement in the ACC and won a postseason game for the first time since seven years, and yet many feel it was a disappointing season.

Maybe that's because the Tigers started 11-0 and looked like an NCAA Tournament team, especially after their thumping of rival South Carolina.

However, all that changed rather quickly after forward James Mays was ruled academically ineligible for the second half of the season. His sudden absence threw the team into a sudden downward spiral, suffering losses to Georgia and Elon, two teams Clemson should have beaten with Mays.

"If you're in Division I basketball, it's not a question of will you have bumps in the road, it's when," Tigers coach Oliver Purnell said. "If you can sustain the bumps and win, you have a solid program.

"We took the bumps and kept kicking, as most everyone who saw our team would agree. We were a solid team, a tough out, a team that was together and had good chemistry."

Purnell's right.

Clemson did regroup and amazingly enough, was 2-1 in the ACC after its first three games, and was prepped to pull off the major upset at home over unbeaten No. 1 Duke. But then what would be the downfall of this team showed its ugly head for the first time as the Tigers went 6-of-21 from the free throw line and Clemson lost by 10. Had they only made 70 percent of their free throws, an upset was very possible and who knows what would have been in store for this team the rest of the season.

Instead, Clemson rebounded and was 3-3 in the ACC after its first six games. The three wins matched the total of number of wins the team had just two years ago in Purnell's first season with the Tigers.

Then came the three killers. Leading in all three games in the final seconds, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest each hit a three-pointer on their final possession to send the game into overtime, where they eventually one.

The three-pointer wouldn't have mattered in two of the games had the Tigers just made one of their preceding free throws. Instead they missed and the other teams didn't.

Clemson made a strong push at the end and finished the ACC season 7-9 and tied for seventh place. Even with the improvement, it begs to ask what might have been with a free throw here and Mays there.

"It's well-chronicled (what could have happened) if we kept our personnel intact," Purnell said. "Anybody who thinks back on the season and sees we lost James Mays also sees we lost three or four games we should have won."

Now that the season is over, the focus now turns toward next season and what it holds.

Mays is expected to return as is the knee of guard Troy Mathis, who should add some much needed firepower from the perimeter with the graduation of Shawan Robinson.

Mays will be the primary inside force now that much improved Akin Akingbala has graduated as well. Had only then coach Larry Shyatt red-shirted Akingbala his freshman year as most thought he would, the Tigers would no doubt be favored to finish in the upper half of the conference.

Instead, Shyatt opted to play him a grand total of 65 meaningless minutes in 13 games. He's been fired for three years and yet, he's still hurting the Tigers.

Mays (6-9) and incoming freshman Trevor Booker (6-7) will patrol the inside. The Tigers also have Karolis Petrukonis (6-11) and A.J. Tyler (6-9) on the way, but neither is anticipated to help much. Although, the same thing was said about Raymond Sykes and he proved to be quite valuable after Mays left.

"There are an awful lot of teams out there who don't do things through their center anymore," Purnell said. "A lot of teams out there lack a super post presence (like) West Virginia, and a number of mid-major teams, like George Mason, are really good with 6-7 centers.

"There are a number of things you can do, but one thing is clear, if we do go with young players at center, we can surround them with (four) really good players."

The perimeter is where Clemson is expected to shine, especially with the return of K.C. Rivers and Vernon Hamilton.

Julius Powell and Cliff Hammonds must improve their play or otherwise next year will look very similar to this past season – some good wins and some bad losses and in the end, likely coming up short.

The Tigers also have to improve their free throw shooting. Finishing only a few spots from being the worst free throw shooting team in the country is unacceptable for a team that has dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"In anything in sport and in life, when you're weak at it, you've got to own up to it and work at it," Purnell said. "You can't run from it."

Even though the 2005-06 season ended in disappointment by not making the NCAA Tournament, all in all, is should still be considered a good year, especially when you consider the history that is Clemson basketball.

Was an opportunity with the conference's easiest schedule lost? Yes, but it was still another solid building block toward what Purnell hopes to achieve.

"I do have to consider it a success," Purnell said. "Yet we're not satisfied, because we really felt like, at the beginning of the year after the first four or five games, that we had a chance to really leapfrog forward. But we just had to struggle to survive, redefine ourselves and then become a good team again. …

"In every area, we made progress — number of wins, ACC wins and finishing strong down the stretch (winning four of five to close the regular season). There's no question we improved. We're not by any means satisfied with where we are, not satisfied with the season. We look forward to improving on it next year."

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