WHAT: Clemson (17-5, 5-3 ACC) at No. 3 North Carolina (21-1, 6-2 ACC)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Sunday
WHERE: Dean E. Smith Center
SPREAD: North Carolina by 9.5
Since Stitt underwent microscopic knee surgery little more than a week ago, the Tigers have played their best basketball of the season. In the two games Stitt has missed, Clemson has won by an average of 26.5 points per game.
No one is suggesting that the team is better off without the freshman point guard, but there could be a direct correlation between his injury and the surge of the Tigers.
And Clemson is hoping that it carries over to Sunday night, when the Tigers will be looking for their first-ever win in at North Carolina. Clemson is 0-52 in Chapel Hill, the longest such losing streak in the history of college basketball.
"(Getting a win) is something that this school will always remember," senior forward James Mays said. "This year I really feel like we have a chance to go in there and win."
Mays could be right. The Tigers were less than a second away from beating the Tar Heels in Clemson a month ago.
But oddly enough, the absence of Stitt from the starting lineup could be the extra edge the Tigers need to get their first win in the Dean Dome.
With Stitt's injury, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell was forced to put senior Cliff Hammonds at the point, move junior K.C. Rivers to shooting guard and insert Sam Perry at the small forward position.
The result has been a massive improvement on offense and an increase of intensity of defense.
"I think as a unit we're better right now," Purnell said. "I think over the last couple of ball games we've played pretty good basketball."
There are several reasons why this is happening. First off, an inexperienced player has been removed from the starting lineup and has been replaced by the senior Perry, who has started more than 60 games and is a defensive presence.
That means there are now three seniors, a junior and a very experienced sophomore in the starting lineup.
"It's no coincidence (we're playing better)," Rivers said of the team's rise in play. "It's chemistry. You have five veterans out there. It's a good nucleus out there."
Also, Stitt is like any freshman and prone to making mistakes. He is averaging exactly 3.0 turnovers a game and only 3.1 assists in 23 minutes per game.
Hammonds commits only 1.36 turnovers and dishes out 4.18 assists in 34 minutes of action. And just for good measure, he also grabs 4.1 rebounds a game.
Moreover, Hammonds is a better shooter away from the free throw line. He's averaging 10.8 points and making 39.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Stitt is only making 18.2 percent of his long distance shots.
"What can you say about the job he's done all year long?" Purnell said of Hammonds. "He just does what you ask him to do."
With Hammonds at the point, the offense doesn't commit the turnovers and seems to run a lot smoother. Also, Hammonds is a very good defensive player and with him guarding the other team's point guard, the opposition's offense gets bogged down.
"It's meant almost everything to the team," Mays said. "(Hammonds) has always been consistent since his freshman year. He levels us emotionally and as a leader. With a guy like that beside you, you can't go wrong."
Of course, that's not to say that the team wouldn't be better with Stitt's returning, though maybe coming off the bench would be best suited for him at this point.
"It's unfortunate that (Stitt got hurt)," Hammonds said. "We're just a bunch of guys that take care of the ball and know where the ball's supposed to go. It's nothing against Demontez, but we just came together.
"We've been around the block. There's something about having a veteran group ou there as opposed to having one or two freshmen out there."
Purnell said he's not opposed to leaving the lineup as it currently is even when Stitt returns to full strength, which could be in a week or so.
"If we can continue to play better and better, then why not?" Purnell said. "I like the way the team is performing the last couple of ball games. I won't shy away from making changes. I'll just go with what's working."
And a win Sunday night would be proof that this new lineup is definitely working.
"If we can do this, we'll go down in history (at Clemson)," Perry said. "They'll never forget us."
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
Clemson (17-5, 5-3 ACC)
G 25 Cliff Hammonds (6-3, 200) 10.8 ppg, 4.2 apg
F 1 K.C. Rivers (6-5, 215) 15.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg
C 35 Trevor Booker (6-7, 240) 11.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg
F 40 James Mays (6-9, 230) 10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg
F 32 Sam Perry (6-5, 215) 2.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg
No. 3 North Carolina (21-2, 6-2 ACC)
G 11 Quentin Thomas (6-3, 190) 2.5 ppg, 2.4 apg
G 1 Marcus Ginyard (6-5, 218) 7.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg
C 50 Tyler Hansbrough (6-9, 250) 22.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg
F 21 Deon Thompson (6-8, 240) 9.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg
F 22 Wayne Ellington (6-4, 200) 15.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg
Hammonds Gives Tigers Boost
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