Clemson on a roll
Clemson rolled off 14 wins in a row before entering ACC play last week, leading some to compare the Tigers basketball team to the Wake Forest football team. But Dan Bonner, a college basketball analyst with Fox Sports Net and CBS, as well as ACC telecasts, wasn’t shocked to see the Tigers having success heading into January.
“Anytime a team goes through its non-conference schedule undefeated, I think you have to say that’s a surprise,” Bonner said, “but I expected Clemson would have a pretty good season.”
The winning didn't stop once the Tigers started ACC play. After beating North Carolina State Tuesday night, Clemson is 3-0 in conference play and, maybe more noteworthy, 2-0 on the road in the ACC.
With three of their five starters having seen significant minutes last season, plus the return of James Mays, who started 11 games before being placed on academic probation last season, Bonner knew Clemson had a chance to be good this year.
The only questions Bonner had about Clemson focused on the offense. He wondered about the Tigers' perimeter shooting and free throws. So far, that’s still a question. Clemson is eighth in field-goal percentage and 9th in three-point-shooting percentage in the ACC. As for free throws, the Tigers are last in the conference at 61.6 percent.
But it's defense where Clemson is making its mark this season. The Tigers have held opponents to just over 61 points a game – good enough for third in the ACC – and forced nearly 19 turnovers a game. That’s been enough to run off 17-straight wins, including the three ACC victories.
Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds have to be considered among the best backcourts in the ACC. Combined, the two average slightly more than 22 points a game, but you have to look past the numbers to realize the impact the guard duo has on the team.
"These guys strip steal and disrupt and square up about as well as any two guards I've seen," said Pete Yanity, who calls play-by-play for the Tigers’ radio network. "Watching Vernon Hamilton with a signature strip steal near midcourt is just a thing of beauty. He's made it such an art. And Cliff Hammonds, I think, is the best defensive player on this team."
After missing most of the season last year, Mays is back this season. So far he is getting the job done on offense, scoring nearly 13 points a game, but he also leads the Tigers with 7.3 rebounds per contest. But, like Hamilton and Hammonds, Mays brings more to the table than just the obvious statistics.
"He's one of the best defenders I've ever been around," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said of Mays. "Certainly the best on the point of your press."
He has been crucial in keying that Clemson press and even held down the point on a 1-3-1 zone used by the Tigers in the win over Florida State.
"He's got good rebounding and scoring numbers," Yanity said, "but then add in the deflected balls, the intimidation factor in the paint, being there as another body inside along with Booker - that certainly has helped the development of Trevor Booker too."
Oh, yes, Booker. Even though Clemson is loaded with experience, Booker, just a freshman, has started all 16 games and is averaging 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a contest.
“He has proved to be just a force and looks like he has been in college hoops for a couple of years, not just a couple of months,” said Yanity.
One of the more interesting stats that jumps out at you about Clemson this season is that its leading scorer, K.C. Rivers, hasn't started a single game. He's averaging 15 points a game coming off the bench, a decision that was made in the second week of practice.
Rivers is one of only three players on the Clemson roster who can play point guard - Hamilton and Hammonds are the other two - and Purnell didn't want all three of them in the starting lineup. He discussed it with Rivers, who didn't hesitate to play the role as sixth man.
"Not only has he been tremendous offensively, he's been very good defensively and rebounding the basketball as well," Purnell said. "People notice him scoring in the box score, but if you look down that stat sheet carefully, you'll see that he gives us something in steals, assists, rebounding - that kind of thing. "
Before the Georgia Tech game, Bonner said he thought a Clemson win would make the Tigers a factor in the ACC race this season. Don’t look now, but Clemson is one of only four ACC teams ranked in the latest ESPN/USA Today poll, coming in at 14th. In the Associated Press poll, Clemson is 17th, but one of only three ACC teams to be ranked.
Purnell said he hasn't been following the attention his team is receiving as the only remaining unbeaten team in Division I men's basketball, but he knows that people are talking about the Tigers. The coach realizes there could be a downside to all of the attention, but at the same time he wants his players to enjoy and embrace what has been, to this point, a special situation.
"There could be pitfalls," Purnell said, "but so far our guys have handled ever situation that we've come across the same way. I think it's just important for me, as their coach, to remind them why we're (unbeaten) and if we don't do the same things that got us here, that will end very quickly."
- Patrick Hite