Tigers Must Regroup for ETSU, NIT

CLEMSON – After saying for the last month that a berth into the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament would be a disgrace, the members of the Clemson basketball team are doing their best to try and change their outlook.

What: East Tennessee State (24-9) at Clemson (21-10, 7-9 ACC)
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum
When: 6 p.m., Wednesday

While they're still upset to be playing in the small and less recognized tournament, they do seem to realize that it would still be pretty cool to earn a trip to Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena.

And it all starts at 6 p.m., Wednesday night, when the No. 1-seed Tigers (21-10) host No. 8-seed East Tennessee State (24-9) at Littlejohn Coliseum in the first round of the 70th annual NIT.

"We're disappointed, but it's not over yet," said junior forward James Mays. "We've got an opportunity to continue playing games in the NIT and continue to prove ourselves. We're very disappointed we didn't make the NCAA Tournament because that was our goal the whole season. But once again, it's another opportunity at hand to win another tournament. …

"If we win the NIT, that'd say a lot of things about this team and give us some momentum going into next year."

Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell believes that if his team can get past a solid Buccaneers team that won the regular season of the Atlantic Sun, then that's when the adrenaline and motivation will kick in for the Tigers.

But it is this first game that worries Purnell. He's not sure how much motivation will be there in the players' hearts.

"I'm concerned with our team's motivation in every game," he said. "But it's up to us as a coaching staff to get our guys ready and motivated to play on Wednesday. I think if we can win that game on Wednesday, then I think our guys will really get into the tournament. But I think we're in the same boat as anybody that was real close to the NCAAs.

"There going to be some disappointment. You've got to acknowledge that disappointment and no funnel your energies to working hard and become a better team as you approach a quality opponent. But I think if you can win that game, then everybody gets involved and gets fired up about the tournament that you're in."

One of the more outspoken members of the Clemson team has been senior point guard Vernon Hamilton. He is the original player that deemed the NIT a "disgrace."

"I'm still very much disappointed," he said. "I wish I would have had the opportunity to get the tournament, but unfortunately these are the cards that we were dealt."

Clemson's fall after starting 17-0 is one that will always live in the ACC record book. It is also a mark that will haunt Hamilton and the rest of the Tigers forever. Clemson is the first team ever not to make the NCAA Tournament since it expanded after starting 17-0.

"It definitely hurts," Hamilton said. "You think about it and you don't want to be that first team or start out the way we did and have it happen that way. It's difficult. You look back on it and say ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda.' But you've just got to keep going."

But now, there's a new task at hand, no matter how hard it is to get motivated.

"I definitely feel like we're the team to beat," Hamilton said. "We're kind of playing with a chip on our shoulder. We felt like we should have been in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately it didn't happen that way for us, so right now we're trying to take out our aggression on all the other teams that are in the NIT."

East Tennessee State (24-9)
G 3 Courtney Pilgram (6-0, 180) 17.8 ppg, 3.7 apg
G 23 Tayloe Taylor (6-2, 155) 3.1 ppg, 3.1 apg
C 51 Brad Nuckles (6-9, 250) 11.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg
F 20 Eryk Thomas (6-6, 210) 7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg
F 35 Andrew Reed (6-8, 215) 9.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg

Clemson (21-10)
G 3 Vernon Hamilton (6-0, 195) 12.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg
G 25 Cliff Hammonds (6-3, 197) 11.5 ppg, 4.2 apg
C 35 Trevor Booker (6-7, 215) 10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg
F 1 K.C. Rivers (6-5, 210) 13.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg
F 40 James Mays (6-9, 222) 12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg

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