Purnell plans to open up competition

CLEMSON — Oliver Purnell says he is finally starting to enjoy watching the NCAA Tournament.

This time last week, the Clemson coach wanted nothing to do with March Madness because he was trying to figure out the madness that became his team during the last three weeks of the season.

"Obviously we would love to still be playing," Purnell said Monday in his end of the year meeting with the media. "But we are going to approach this thing from now on with our program, that if we are not still playing at this point in the year then we are going to be disappointed.

"It's disappointing not to be playing right now, but at the same time we did a lot of good things and had a solid year."

It's a year that looked like it might turn into a great one when the Tigers routed Maryland on Feb. 17 and then beat Georgia Tech that following Sunday to improve to 22-4. At that time, Clemson was being talked about as a possible No. 2 seed in the tournament, and then the wheels came off.

"It was more of a lack of focus on defense," forward Trevor Booker said. "That was something me and (Purnell) talked about. I know me and the rest of the team is going to focus on that in our workouts."

The Tigers dropped five of their last six games and capped the season with a disappointing first-round exit to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.

"As I looked at are ending, which we obviously were not satisfied with, a lot of it had to do with the competition that we were playing, but certainly we were responsible for not playing as well down the stretch," Purnell said. "Defensively, as I look back on it, the consistency with our defense wasn't good. It wasn't any one phase.

"It was our transition defense, it was our half court defense, our three-point field goal percentage and our pressure. It wasn't consistent enough down the stretch. When we were really, really good, those were areas that we excelled at. With that in mind, that is something we have to improve upon. That is something we are going to focus on in the off season and certainly will be focused on as we begin practice next year."

Purnell is also going to focus on his lineup.

The Clemson coach said with the exception of Booker, no starting position is a lock for those that return. The Tigers are expected to bring back 10 scholarship players from this year's 23-9 team, while adding Milton Jennings, Booker's little brother Devin and Donte Hill.

"We need tremendous effort and we need consistency," Purnell said. "Guys need to understand that we are going to demand that. To win, that is demanded. The guys that are willing to work at that in the off season and guys that are willing to work once we start practice, have an opportunity to play early.

"If they continue to that then they will have an opportunity to continue to play in the middle and if they continue to do that then they will have an opportunity to play late. They are going to have to deserve to do that. They have to buy into raising our level even more than it was this year and be consistent with it."

Being consistent was Purnell's main focus Monday and it's the same message he delivered to his players when he talked to them one-on-one last week.

"We played as well as you could play against Duke, Maryland and some of the rest, but that level was not there at the end and we talked about that many times about getting back to that level," Purnell said. "In order to do that I think the competition needs to be keen.

"Any time you have 10 guys back and eight of those guys played a lot, and you have three new guys coming on paper that look really, really good then it only makes sense to open up the competition. Competition makes us all better. It gives you a sense of urgency."

Though he will not be challenged for his job, Booker, who decided last week he will not forgo his senior year and will return to school next year, said competition will be the best thing for next year's team as it tries to take the next step and advance in the NCAA Tournament.

"Some guys are going to have to step it up more," he said. "We have so much talent on this team that really anyone can get the starting job so there is going to be a lot of competition in practice and we will see how things work out during the summer."

And maybe this time next year Purnell and his Tigers will still be in the tournament instead of watching it.

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