Hamilton, Tigers Aiming for NIT Championship

NEW YORK – It seems only fitting that Clemson senior Vernon Hamilton will wrap up his collegiate career against the team and coach that assumed he was going to be their starting point guard.

What: West Virginia (26-9) at Clemson (25-10)
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
TV: ESPN

In high school in Richmond, Va., Hamilton played alongside and was friends with the two sons of West Virginia coach John Beilein. So much so, that Beilein was pretty upset when Hamilton opted for the ACC instead of becoming a Mountaineer.

Now, some five years later, Hamilton and Beilein will square off in a winner-take-all match in the finals of the National Invitation Tournament Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

"Me and Coach Beilein are still good friends," Hamilton said. "He's a guy that I really respect as a coach and even more as a person. He's always been there for me, even after I made the decision to come to Clemson."

Hamilton played one year of high school basketball with the eldest Beilein son, Patrick. Hamilton and Mark Beilein are the same age and played two years of hoops and football together.

The families were pretty close and Hamilton and the Beilein boys were tight friends. So when John Beilein went from being the head coach at Richmond to West Virginia, he offered Hamilton a scholarship almost immediately.

In fact, Beilein was the first coach to recruit Hamilton.

But as a senior weighing out his options, Hamilton didn't accept it and opted to look at various schools, one of which was Clemson.

"I took my visit to Clemson and I really liked everything," Hamilton said. "It easily could have went the other way, but at the time I was just really focused on playing in the ACC. That's really what the difference was."

When Hamilton committed to the Tigers, Beilein didn't take too well to the news. He called Hamilton and said some pretty hard statements, basically telling him that he had made a big mistake.

"He was a little disappointed," Hamilton said with a laugh. "He called my house after I committed. He told me some things, but that's because we had had that relationship for so long. I didn't want him to feel like I turned my back on him."

While Hamilton was with the Tigers during the first years of Oliver Purnell's campaign, West Virginia started to flourish and even made it to the Elite Eight two seasons ago. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Clemson were struggling just to make it to the NIT.

"When they went, I was happy for them," Hamilton said. "I really was. But I wasn't like, oh, I wish I hadn't gone to Clemson. I was just happy for Coach Beilein."

Now that both teams are in the NIT and have reached the finals, it gave the two some time at Monday night's banquet to sit down and talk things out. They still consider themselves close.

"We talked for a long time at the banquet the other day and he told me that I've had a great career and how much he's followed me," Hamilton said. "And that if I needed anything ever that he'd be there for me."

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
West Virginia (26-9)
G 14 Dennis Nichols (6-2, 190) 10.8 ppg, 4.5 apg
G 22 Alex Ruoff (6-6, 210) 10.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg
C 33 Rob Summers (7-0, 250) 4.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg
F 11 Joe Alexander (6-8, 210) 10.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg
F 21 Frank Young (6-5, 210) 15.1 ppg, 3.7 apg

Clemson (25-10)
G 3 Vernon Hamilton (6-0, 195) 12.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg
G 25 Cliff Hammonds (6-3, 197) 11.6 ppg, 4.0 apg
C 35 Trevor Booker (6-7, 215) 10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg
F 1 K.C. Rivers (6-5, 210) 13.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg
F 40 James Mays (6-9, 222) 12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg

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