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March 14, 2010
Tigers vs. Tigers
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Thursday night's deflated expressions gave way to smiles and backslaps three days later after Clemson's basketball team learned its NCAA Tournament destination Sunday evening.
Amazing what seeing your name flash onto the screen can do, even if you already knew it would appear anyway.
And the Tigers, last seen suffering an exasperating first-round loss to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament, have reason to consider themselves fortunate beyond simply being one of the 65 teams in the tournament field.
Their seed, No. 7 in the East Region, was higher than most players and coaches anticipated. And their opponent, No. 10 seed Missouri, employs an up-tempo, pressing style that suits Clemson just fine.
"We go against it every day in practice, so I don't think we'll have too much trouble with it," said senior forward Trevor Booker
Losers of back-to-back games after winning five of six, Clemson (21-10) now sets its sights on unloading the baggage of its past two NCAA trips.
Villanova knocked them off in the first round two years ago, and Michigan did it last year. Both times, the Tigers were the higher-seeded team.
Seventh-year coach Oliver Purnell, who addressed season-ticket holders who joined the team at the WestZone facility to watch the selection show, said he thinks this year's team is capable of doing something different because it has yet to play its best basketball of the season.
Purnell is 0-5 in the NCAAs. He lost in the first round twice at Dayton (2003 and 2000) and once at Old Dominion (1992).
The Tigers were a No. 7 seed last year and a 5 seed in 2008.
"We feel like it's our time," he said. "This team has been through a lot of adversity and bounced back and been resilient. This tournament is an excellent opportunity to show what we can do."
Clemson has had plenty of trouble with grind-it-out, low-scoring games that force execution in halfcourt offense. That was evidenced Thursday in Greensboro, where N.C. State handed Clemson its second consecutive first-round ouster in the ACC Tournament with a 59-57 victory.
The Tigers were seldom able to get into their press while shooting 39.2 percent, and the Wolfpack used long, productive possessions to slow the pace and keep Clemson from its preferred up-and-down style.
That style is precisely the blueprint of fourth-year Missouri coach Mike Anderson, who guided last year's team within one win of the Final Four before a close loss to Connecticut.
The teams that will square off Friday in Buffalo's HSBC Arena (time to be determined) share more similarities than their mascots. Missouri (22-10) leads the nation in steals per game with 10.9. Clemson ranks eighth with 9.6.
And both teams went one-and-done in their conference tournaments.
Anderson, who spent 17 years under Nolan Richardson at Arkansas, employs a press that's similar to Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell." He calls his "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball."
But where Richardson's style was based on prolific offense, Anderson's imprint is more about stifling defense.
Sounds a lot like Purnell's philosophy. Purnell said the Tigers' staff actually studied some Missouri tape last summer to compare Missouri's pressure tactics with Clemson's.
"We don't have to prepare for that or figure out how we're going to get the tempo up and those kinds of things, so I like that," he said. "And I'm sure they do too. We're both kind of swimming in really comfortable waters."
Missouri finished 10-6 in the Big 12 and suffered a 75-60 loss to Nebraska in the first round of the conference tournament after getting waxed by Kansas in the regular-season finale.
Like Clemson, Missouri has struggled away from its home confines; eight of its 10 losses occurred outside of Columbia, Mo.
Missouri is led by 6-foot-6 wing Kim English, a sophomore from Baltimore who is averaging 13.9 points per game. Guard Marcus Denmon has compiled a 42.5-percent clip on 3-pointers.
If Clemson advances Friday, it would likely face No. 2 seed West Virginia on Sunday. The Mountaineers play No. 15 seed Morgan State on Friday in Buffalo.
All three of Clemson's at-large bids under Purnell have been virtual locks going in, but that didn't keep the coach from getting a little nervous Sunday as he waited for his team's name to flash onto the big screens in the WestZone facility at Memorial Stadium.
"I knew we were in, but you're always still a little nervous until you see your name up there," he said."
Thursday's upset defeat to the Wolfpack, coupled with a loss a week ago at Wake Forest in the regular-season finale, created the belief that Clemson would be saddled with a 9 or 10 seed.
Purnell said his team is about where it should be.
"There are some naysayers out there who don't think the league is that good or this team is that good," he said. "But we distinguished ourselves in a very good league, and the seed reflects that."
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