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March 26, 2010
On solid ground
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Almost from the moment he arrived at Clemson in 2003, Oliver Purnell has been determined to change the "brand" associated with its basketball program.
He's sought to change how the team views itself. He's sought to change how the fans view the team. And he's sought to change how people far removed from the program, regionally and nationally, view the team.
In seven seasons at Clemson, he has successfully reshaped perceptions of a program that has been a doormat for most of its history.
Purnell readily acknowledges that the Tigers' recent NCAA futility could chip away at the perceptions and definitions he's worked so hard to establish.
But he thinks most people will look beyond the first-round NCAA flameouts that have occurred the past three seasons.
"I am" concerned about the brand being affected, "but I don't think that dominates it in terms of people who are really important to us," Purnell said Friday at his season wrap-up press conference.
The people Purnell is talking about are Clemson's fans -- whose interest in his basketball program has steadily grown -- and the players he is recruiting or will recruit.
On the first count, he said it's an encouraging sign that fans who a few years ago were overjoyed by simply appearing in the NCAA Tournament are now frustrated and upset that the Tigers can't push past the first round.
On the second, he doesn't seem to think prospects will suddenly drop the Tigers because of their lack of postseason success.
Dating to a loss to Villanova in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Clemson has lost five consecutive opening games in the NCAA and ACC tournaments - all to double-digit seeds.
"I think recruits have short memories," said Purnell, who is 0-6 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. "I don't think they're out there (saying), 'They didn't get to the Sweet 16 last year.' I think what they're concerned about is, are you on television? Are you ranked? Are you in the national conversation?
"When ESPN starts talking about basketball, when the magazines come out in the summer, they talk about Clemson basketball. I think that those are the things that are most important."
And Purnell, whose team suffered an 86-78 loss to Missouri last week in Buffalo, thinks those things will continue despite the sour endings.
This year's team finished 21-11, setting a school record for consecutive 20-win seasons with four. Purnell, who's compiled a 93-41 record overall over that stretch, has also given Clemson three straight winning records in ACC play for the first time in its history.
As he looked back on the season and evaluated the future without star Trevor Booker, who became the Tigers' first representative on the All-ACC first team since 2003, he says the program is on solid ground and remains capable of challenging for an ACC title.
"We'd all love to be still playing, there's no question about that," he said. "But being a week removed from the season and looking back on it, I think it's safe to say we had another good year from the standpoint of a winning non-league schedule, a winning ACC schedule, a berth in our national tournament.
"We're certainly disappointed we're still not playing, but we did have a good year."
Purnell thinks the view of Clemson as a team that fizzles in March can be changed if the Tigers can simply get that elusive NCAA win. Their last came in 1997, under Rick Barnes.
It will not be an easy task without Booker, who started all 134 games of his Clemson career before finishing fifth in school history in scoring and third in rebounds.
Purnell is hoping center Jerai Grant further elevates his game as a senior, and Devin Booker will also be counted on to enhance his impact.
A year ago, Purnell said only Trevor Booker was guaranteed a starting spot heading into 2009-10. Now, he says point guard Demontez Stitt is the lone player who deserves that distinction.
Purnell and his staff are already taking a hard look at how they plan to generate more offense without Booker. He said the best way to be better is to avoid committing so many turnovers.
The Tigers committed 480 on the season, to 453 assists. They amassed 20 turnovers in the loss to Missouri and 15 in a first-round defeat to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament.
Last year, Clemson totaled 478 assists and 456 turnovers in the same number of games.
"We have to take care of the basketball better," Purnell said. "We just turned the ball over far too many times, and anytime you turn the ball over that's a lost opportunity to score.
"If we can have seven or eight more of those (opportunities) a game, then that's going to help us. Because you're not going to shoot a zero percent. You're going to shoot somewhere in the 40s, probably. As I looked back on the number of close ballgames that we lost, including the last three, seven more possessions would be helpful."
Clemson's ability to protect the ball was not helped by a midseason foot injury suffered by Stitt. He was either out or hobbled for a three-week stretch during which the Tigers lost four of five games.
Entering the last game of the regular-season, Clemson needed to win at Wake Forest to secure a bye in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The bye might've already been secured had Stitt been healthy earlier in the season.
Last year, Purnell lost wing K.C. Rivers to graduation after a first-round NCAA loss to Michigan. He also unexpectedly lost explosive shooting guard Terrence Oglesby, who gave up his final two years of eligibility in favor of a professional foray overseas.
The addition of a celebrated recruiting class strengthened the hope that Milton Jennings, Noel Johnson, Devin Booker and Donte Hill would help soften the blow from those losses.
Jennings, the Tigers' first McDonald's All-American since Sharone Wright in 1991, ended up struggling more than some anticipated. Johnson showed some promise as a shooter but was inconsistent. Booker had his share of ups and downs, and Hill was not in the rotation.
"It was a developing year for them," Purnell said. "They certainly were involved and important to us in a very solid year for us. They've got a long way to go in terms of becoming outstanding players in our league, but I think they're going to do that. I think they're big for us next year. We've said many times they're our future, but we counted on them this year.
"Milton was certainly up and down and struggled, and really all of them did. All of them were a little up and down."
Purnell wants to see a better rebounding team next season, and he'll lose 8.4 rebounds per game from Trevor Booker.
Last year's team was more productive on the offensive glass (462 to this year's 420) and averaged 37.2 total rebounds to this year's 36.8.
Booker averaged 15.2 points per game as a senior, and Purnell doesn't have any expectations of any returning player presenting the multi-faceted threat he provided - at least, not immediately.
"He's the best all-around player to ever play here. We just don't have anybody who's exactly like him. We've got a couple of guys who could develop to that. If you remember when he got here, after his freshman year you weren't talking about him off the bounce or with his right hand or anything else.
"Player development is huge in our program, and it always has been. It's helped us. We've had four-year guys, and that's why every year we've been able to have a team that we felt was going to compete for the ACC championship or was going to win 20 games or was going to be in the NCAA Tournament."
Marcus Thornton, a 6-foot-7 forward from Atlanta, will enter the fold this summer. Purnell calls him a "power guy" who's also "springy, athletic and fast."
Thornton, who was named Mr. Basketball in Georgia, suffered a severely sprained ankle during warmups before his team's recent Class AAAAA championship game and sat out most of the 10-point defeat.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he returned to school with a walking boot and crutches.
As for maintaining and strengthening the perceptions he's built in his time at Clemson, Purnell knows what people will say in view of the NCAA failures.
But he doesn't think the inability to break through that barrier will end up causing the downfall of the program.
"Yeah, I am concerned," he said. "We want to be a team that advances and that kind of thing. And I think the great thing about our sport and everything else is, if you can do that next year, then that's what people remember.
"People don't really remember. They remember what you've done recently. And most recently, we got eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. Yeah, I'm concerned about that. The only way to fix that is to get back there, first of all, which is tough. And win a few games."
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