There is no denying that Clemson has made extraordinary progress in Oliver Purnell’s first six years as head coach. He has brought Clemson to the upper division of the ACC in consecutive seasons thanks to back-to-back winning seasons in league play, something that has not been done at Clemson since the 1965-67 era.
Clemson has ranked in the final top 25 of the Associated Press poll each of the last two years, a first in Clemson history. He has coached the Tigers to 72 wins over the last three years, the highest total in any three-year run in Clemson history and the third highest victory total in the ACC in that time period.
The Tigers join ACC powers Duke and North Carolina as the only league schools to go to the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, and Purnell will attempt to join Rick Barnes as the only coaches to take Clemson to the “Big Dance”’ three consecutive years when the Tigers take the court in 2009-10.
His most impressive accomplishment might be the consistent improvement the program has made since he came to Clemson. Last year the Tigers finished 23-9 for a 72 percent winning percentage. It marked the fifth straight year Clemson had improved its winning percentage from the previous year, something only one other ACC coach (Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech) has accomplished.
In August of 2009, ESPN announced that College Gameday would come to Littlejohn Coliseum for its January 23 broadcast. The Tigers will face Duke that night in a nationally televised game. It is an example of the level of respect for the Tiger program under Purnell, and for the atmosphere that has been created for basketball in Littlejohn Coliseum during his tenure.
To bring the run to a record sixth straight year (by one coach at the same school), Purnell will have to produce one of the top coaching performances of his 20 years as a Division I head coach. The Tigers return just two starters and 55 percent of their scoring from last year’s club that finished 24th in the final AP.
Gone from Clemson’s starting five are K.C. Rivers, Terrence Oglesby and Raymond Sykes. Rivers left Clemson with 1,684 career points, seventh in school history and a record 281 three-point goals. He was Clemson’s second leading scorer with a 14.2 average in 2008-09 and also found time to pull in 6.0 rebounds per game, second best on the club. He finished his career with 721 rebounds, the most in school history among players 6-5 and under.
Most importantly, he left as the winningest player in Clemson history having played in 91 Tiger victories in his four years.
Oglesby surprised many by announcing this past summer that he was going to turn professional with a team in Europe. In two years he scored 177 three-point goals, sixth best in Clemson history, and he averaged in double figures in each of his two years, including a 13.2 average last year.
Sykes started 31 of the 32 games last year and averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in addition to shooting a strong 58 percent from the field. Just as Oglesby’s three-point bombs could ignite the Clemson crowd, Sykes thunder-dunks could also bring the entire Littlejohn Coliseum house to its collective feet.
Despite these statistics, all is not gloom and doom with the Clemson program. Purnell is famous for employing 10 players per game, a necessary strategy because of his up-tempo full court pressure attack. Eleven lettermen return, including six players who participated in every game for at least 400 total minutes over the 32 contests.
Leading the returning lettermen is All-America candidate Trevor Booker, a contender for ACC Player of the Year honors. That is a strong statement considering Clemson has had just one ACC Player of the Year in 56 previous seasons in the conference. That was Horace Grant in 1986-87 when he led the league in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, the first winner of the ACC statistical “Triple Crown”
Booker, who is on the preseason Wooden Award Watch List, led the ACC in rebounding and field goal percentage last year as a junior, the first ACC player to do that since Tim Duncan of Wake Forest in 1996-97. He was the first under classman to do it since Clemson’s own Dale Davis did so in 1989-90. You can see by these comparisons, Booker is in some pretty good company.
“I feel he is a legitimate All-America candidate and is one of the top players in a great league,” said Oliver Purnell. “He does more than just score points and pull in rebounds. He is an outstanding passer and defender, as well. He is a hard worker and an emotional leader on the court.”
Another reason for optimism about the Clemson program is the infusion of talent from a freshman class that is ranked 11th best in the nation by Scout.com, the highest ranking for a Clemson incoming class in many years in Tigertown.
“I could see the excitement in this group from the time they came to campus in July,” said Purnell. “They understand that they will all have a chance to play right away. They have followed our team the last few years and they know about our style of play.
“At the end of last year I made the statement that Trevor Booker is the only player on this roster with a guaranteed starting position. Everything else is up for grabs. It has created competition and I am sure the four new freshmen are going to bring it on the first day of practice.”
This class could be regarded as the top signee group for Clemson since the freshmen of 1995-96 included Tom Wideman, Andrius Jurkunas, Terrell McIntyre, Tony Christie and Harold Jamison. Clemson’s 1991-92 class would have to be considered its best ever on some level because McDonald’s All-American Sharone Wright, Devin Gray and Chris Whitney all went on to NBA careers, the only class in Clemson history that produced three future NBA players.
This year’s freshman class also has a McDonald’s All-American and a new power forward named Devin. Wright was a McDonald’s All-American in 1991, the last Clemson signee to achieve that distinction until this year when 6-9 Milton Jennings was selected. Jennings was ranked as high as the 17th best player in the nation by PrepStars and 23rd by ESPN.com, and he certainly will get a strong look at a starting position somewhere on the court.
Noel Johnson, who signed with Clemson on June 23, out of Fayette County High School in Georgia, is ranked as the 30th best prospect in the nation by ESPN.com. Devin Booker, Trevor’s younger brother, was ranked as high as #65 in the nation by one service and is a third consensus top 100 player in the class. Donte Hill was a top 150 player who reminds Purnell of Clemson great Cliff Hammonds because of his attention to detail and outstanding defensive abilities.
“The fact that we are bringing in these young men speaks to the fact that we are consistently getting better and are now in the mix when people talk about the upper echelon teams in the ACC. “
Purnell does not expect his team’s style of play to change much at all with the infusion of new talent. “We led the ACC in three-point shooting last year,” said Purnell. “With the loss of Rivers and Oglesby, two of the top three-point shooters in our history, we won’t be as potent from the outside, but I am optimistic we will be a better team on defense that will continue to run and force turnovers. We should be a better running team, a little more athletic. We will continue to play 10-11 players in every game and try to wear down the opposition with our pressure.”
The leader of the backcourt is junior point guard Demontez Stitt who averaged 8.7 points per game last year. He was sixth in the ACC in assists per game and had the sixth best assist/turnover ratio as well. Stitt is capable of breaking down the opposition off the dribble, as he showed in a 21-point performance at Wake Forest in a head to head meeting with first round draft choice Jeff Teague, and in an 18-point outing against NCAA Tournament team Illinois in Clemson’s victory in the ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge last year. He also took 18 charges, the most by a Clemson player in 20 years.
Stitt will get support and a challenge for the starting point guard position from sophomore Andre Young. The 5-9 dynamo averaged 4.4 points and 2.1 assists per game last year when he had a 2.87 assist/turnover ratio, the second best ratio in Clemson history. He converted 39 percent of his three-point goals last year, including 4-4 in a victory at Georgia Tech in late February.
The wing positions feature returning lettermen David Potter, Tanner Smith and Bryan Narcisse. These players will be looked upon to take and make more three-point shots than they have previously in order to make up for the loss of Rivers and Oglesby, who combined for 167 three-point shots last year, the top one-two three-point shooting combination in the ACC last year.
Potter is the most experienced of the group as he joins Booker and Karolis Petrukonis as the only seniors on the Clemson roster with three varsity letters. Potter was the top scorer off the bench last year with a 4.9 average. Potter made 37 percent of his 63 three-point attempts last year so he is capable of knocking down outside shots.
Smith had a strong freshman season in 2008-09 when he averaged 3.6 points and added 34 assists and 29 steals. The first-team Academic All-ACC selection brought energy off the bench last year, something he showed at the end of the year when he scored 10 points in just 14 minutes in the ACC Tournament versus Georgia Tech. He made 36 percent of his three-point shots over the course of the season, so he is also a capable outside shooter. In the off season Smith has worked hard in the weight room and is 15 pounds stronger at 220 pounds entering this fall.
Narcisse saw limited playing time last year, seeing time in 16 of the 32 games. He shot 53.3 percent from the field and had an impact on Clemson’s full court press thanks to his long arms and quick feet. He made progress over the course of the season and played in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
Johnson joined the Clemson basketball family on June 23. After signing with Southern California, he was allowed to come to Clemson after that program had a coaching change. He had been recruited by Purnell throughout his high school career and was familiar with the Clemson program.
After Oglesby announced he was turning professional, it opened a scholarship and it opened a wing position. Johnson filled the bill. The 6-6 player averaged 22 points and eight rebounds during his senior year at Fayette County High School and he was a first-team all-state selection.
Hill is a 6-4 wing player who comes to Clemson from Norfolk Collegiate School, the same school that sent Tiger center Karolis Petrukonis to Clemson. Hill posted impressive all-around statistics at that school, as he averaged 23.5 points, 14 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game and recorded 23 double-doubles and six triple doubles his senior year.
Zavier Anderson and Jonah Baise are two returning lettermen walk-ons who will provide depth at the guard positions. Anderson played in seven games last year and Baise saw playing time in four contests.
Trevor Booker is the unquestioned leader of the Clemson team. The 6-7 post player, who made second-team All-ACC last year, averaged 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game a year ago to go with a 57.1 percent field goal accuracy. Those statistics included a 15.0 scoring average and 10.5 rebounding figure in ACC games, the only player to average a double-double in ACC play.
Booker has 1,239 career points and 792 career rebounds and needs just 208 rebounds to become just the third player in Clemson history with 1000 points and 1000 rebounds. The other two players are Tree Rollins and Dale Davis, who went on to play a combined 30 years in the NBA.
As stated above, Booker led the ACC in rebounding and field goal percentage, just the sixth ACC player in history to do that. The previous five all played at least 10 years in the NBA. “Trevor is capable of changing the course of a game,” said Purnell. “We led the ACC in three-point goals per game last year and he had a big impact on that because opponents have to account for Trevor on the inside, leaving our wing players with good shooting opportunities. “
Booker became just the second player in Clemson history to record at least 40 assists, 40 steals and 40 blocks in one season last year, another example of his all-around abilities. He ranked second in the ACC in blocked shots per game and is fifth in school history in that category with 204 entering his final season. He was a first-team All-ACC defensive player in 2008-09.
Jerai Grant was one of the most improved front court players in he ACC last year. The 6-8 junior averaged 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game as Clemson’s top post player off the bench. He shot 64.4 percent from the field and blocked 45 shots in just 468 minutes. That blocked shot rate of 10.7 minutes per block was ninth best in school history. He was very active on the offensive boards as he had more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. He also improved his free throw percentage by 17 percent over his freshman year.
Catalin Baciu and Karolis Petrukonis are two centers who will compete for playing time this year. Both showed considerable improvement last year. Baciu is a sophomore who had 18 points and 19 rebounds in 44 minutes of action last year. He has bulked up to 245 pounds in the off-season, 27 more than his weight when he enrolled last year. Petrukonis played in six games as a reserve center.
Jennings and Devin Booker are a pair of frontcourt players who will get every opportunity to see considerable playing time this year as freshmen. Jennings is capable of playing on the wing as well, while Booker is a younger version of his older brother Trevor with strong moves from the post.
Jennings is just the fourth McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Tigers. He averaged 20.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a senior at Pinewood Prep in Summerville, SC. The second-team Parade All-American was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in South Carolina each of the last two years and led the Panthers to four straight Class AAA Championships. He was a four-time all-state selection.
Booker scored over 1,500 points at Union High School in Whitmire, SC, including a school record 625 his senior year (yes more than Trevor had as a senior). That included a 24.0 scoring average and 13.7 rebounds per contest. Booker was ranked 65th in the nation by Scout.com and 96th by Rivals.com. He shot 60 percent from the field for his high school career and blocked better than three shots per game as a junior and senior.