Plenty of work to do

Clemson may have reached the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season and won more than 20 games for the fourth year in a row.

But the Tigers are going to have to contend with the notion that they can't win the "big one" for another year following their first-round defeat in the NCAA tourney.

The loss to Missouri marked a third consecutive one-and-done in the NCAA event under coach Oliver Purnell and a fourth first-round loss in a row. The Tigers also lost in the first round in 1998.

It's an issue the Tigers likely will be fighting from the very moment practice starts next October.

Purnell's thoughts?

"Next year we'll have a different team," Purnell said. "This team was different from last year's team. And that's the approach I think that we have to take."

These Tigers appeared in position to end their tournament drought when they won 21 games and finished 9-7 in the ACC. But they were already on a skid when they entered NCAA play, having lost their regular-season finale at Wake Forest and their lone ACC tourney appearance to North Carolina State.

The Tigers now face a key loss for next season with the departure of forward Trevor Booker, a 6-7 bull who was a take-charge guy at both ends of the court. He along with forward David Potter were the only senior starters since Karolis Petrukonis left after receiving his degree in December.

The Tigers have a key returnee in point guard Demontez Stitt, however, and Jerai Grant finished his junior campaign on a high note. His numbers were actually better in conference play (8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds) than they were against non-league opponents (6.0 and 4.1, respectively).

But without question they need their freshmen to step up. Milton Jennings, Noel Johnson, Devin Booker, and Donte Hill were the most heralded class in the Purnell era, and they now will be under the gun to perform if the Tigers are to make it to the NCAA field next March.

"Hopefully," Purnell said, "we can get back next year -- it's extremely difficult to get here out of the ACC -- and have a different outcome."


FINAL RECORD: 21-11, 9-7, tied for fifth in the ACC.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Tigers got over the 20-win mark for a fourth consecutive season, the longest such streak in school history. A third consecutive NCAA appearance also matched the longest such streak ever for the Tigers, who were in the NCAA field in Rick Barnes' last three years as coach (1996, '97, and '98).

They also had a winning record in ACC play for a third consecutive year, the first time they have ever managed to do that.

The Tigers shot the ball well from the field (45.3 percent) and had a two-turnover-a-game-advantage against their opponents. They were just a tick under a plus-one advantage in turnovers in their 16 conference games.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The problems may have started last May when G Terrence Oglesby, a three-point specialist, announced he was leaving Clemson to pursue a professional career in Europe. Tanner Smith stepped into Oglesby's spot and shot only 27.5 percent from three-point range.

G Demontez Stitt missed two games with a sprained foot, one of them a six-point loss at Boston College.

A highly regarded four-member recruiting class, which included Milton Jennings, a 6-9 forward who was considered the highest rated signee in the Oliver Purnell era, never really contributed on a consistent basis. Jennings, Devin Booker, Noel Johnson, and Donte Hill combined to average 14.0 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Yeah, I think there will probably be a perception among some people. I certainly don't subscribe to that." -- Coach Oliver, on whether the perception will be that his team can't win in March after losing first-round NCAA games the last three years.

THE GOOD NEWS: Three starters return, headed by F/C Jerai Grant, who emerged as a solid inside defender (a team-high 55 blocked shots) as well as an inside scoring threat. The Tigers have a solid point guard in Demontez Stitt, who will be a senior.

The Tigers have become a consistent winner under coach Olier Purnell with a 93-41 record over the last four seasons. That's the most successful run in Clemson school history by far. Marcus Thornton, a 6-8 power forward from Atlanta, signed in November and should give the Tigers more muscle up front. Though the current freshman class didn't produce great numbers, it still has a lot of potential.

THE BAD NEWS: The departure of Trevor Booker takes away the leading scorer (15.2) and rebounder (8.4), not to mention the spiritual leader of the club. He had the ability to take over a game by himself and virtually "will" the Tigers to a win with his play at both ends of the court.

There's no obvious successor to assume that role.

Clemson continues to be one of the league's worst free-throw shooting teams. The Tigers shot only 66.1 percent for the season, which was a step back from last year when they shot 68.8 percent. They haven't topped 70 percent since making 70.2 percent of their opportunities in 2000-01.

KEY RETURNEES: Stitt averaged 11.4 ppg (second on the team) while shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio was lacking, however, with totals of 94 assists and 80 turnovers for the season.

Jerai Grant averaged 7.2 ppg for the season but scored in double figures in four of his last eight games.

G Andre Young came off the bench to shoot 37.5 percent from behind the three-point arc and average 9.2 ppg.

G Tanner Smith is a third returning starter but was off and on with his shooting (40.1 percent).

Newcomers Devin Booker, Noel Johnson, Milton Jennings, and Donte Hill have the potential to contribute much more than they did as freshmen, when Johnson averaged 4.8, Booker 4.5, and Jennings 3.3 ppg. Top Stories