Commentary: No Time Like The Present To Turn The Corner


by - Correspondent -
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This is the kind of game Oliver Purnell envisioned when he took over the Clemson basketball program prior to the 2003-2004 season:

Two ranked teams - not just one - playing before a rowdy, raucous sellout crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum, and doing so in front of a national television audience.

Such will be the case Sunday when the 19th-ranked Tigers entertain No. 1 North Carolina. The entire country will be an invited guest to the party, courtesy of Fox Sports Net. RSVP not necessary.

Purnell once called Clemson a sleeping giant within the ACC. Sunday, his program can arise, totally refreshed, if it can gain the measure of the Tar Heels - a basketball giant which has been fully awake for decades.

Pick your cliche'. It's David vs. Goliath, the Haves vs. the Have Nots.

It's the Play-Ins vs. the Play-Ons.

You get the idea.

And this isn't the first time we've seen this story. The same two teams met under virtually identical circumstances a year ago, also at Littlejohn, and North Carolina won going away. It was part of a death march of a slide for Clemson which saw a 17-0 start degenerate into a second straight NIT appearance.

Will Sunday be more of the same? Or can the Tigers make this one sequel which is superior to the original motion picture?

We won't know until sometime after 9:30 p.m. EST Sunday night. But one thing is for sure:

This Clemson team is ready to rumble.

With James Mays back close to full strength and Sam Perry again beginning to look like the high-energy guy he's been his entire career, Purnell's gun will be full of bullets once the ball goes in the air. If Clemson is blown out again this time around, injuries won't have anything to do with it.

The Tigers are healthy. They're loose. They appear to be focused.

It's an example set by their coach, who can be intense and charming, jacked up and jovial, all within the same time frame.

Purnell can be both entertaining and intimidating as he prowls the bench area during games - whether he's slapping the top of his clean-shaven head to signal in a play, standing defiantly with arms crossed and face twisted into a scowl, or extending those arms their full reach - palms raised toward the heavens - in exasperation over a referee's latest gaffe.

He also knows how to excite fans, whether it's by his on-court demeanor or - as he did Saturday night - visiting the Clemson students camped out in what is known as Tent City outside the IPTAY office, awaiting the chance to get tickets to Sunday's main event.

This is the kind of thing that happens at a basketball school, mind you.

The atmosphere adds up to one of the more important nights in the history of Clemson basketball.

True, if the Tigers lose this one there remains plenty of time to do damage within the ACC. There are 15 more games to be played, in fact. So putting all your eggs into this one basket would be ill-advised.

But that fact doesn't detract from the magnitude of this game.

Win it, and the rest of the league - and the nation - will stand up and take notice. Win it, and Clemson will be stamped as a legitimate contender in the ACC. Win it, and the Tigers are a sure-fire lock for the NCAA Tournament. Win it, and perhaps the program fully turns the corner Purnell has been negotiating since taking over almost five years ago.

Lose it? Well, all of those things can still happen. Probably will sooner, rather than later.

But why wait?

Somewhere, the strained vocal tones of Nature Boy Ric Flair can be heard:

To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man.

Clemson nation, The Man is coming to Littlejohn Sunday night.

Might as well make the most of it.

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