CLEMSON, SC -- Rick Barnes’ second season as Clemson head basketball coach seems like ancient history. Gone are Harold Jamison, Terrell McIntyre, Tom Wideman, and Tony Christie, collectively the heart behind Barnes’ impressive four-year run. After leaving for Texas a year and a half ago, Barnes himself is fast becoming a distant memory in the minds of Tiger basketball fans.
Of course, there are still a few remnants of the Barnes era at Clemson, with the most apparent being Barnes’ successor and former staff member, Larry Shyatt. As far as the players, all have moved on to varying professional leagues and teams. That is, all but one.
Andrius Jurkunas will suit up for another year as the Tiger’s only returning starter and the team’s lone senior. After red-shirting in 1997-98 with a knee injury, Jurkunas became eligible for a fifth year, long after the rest of Barnes’ “Fab Five” have moved on.
And don’t think for a minute that Clemson’s younger players don’t remind him of it.
“I’ve been around for a while,” Jurkunas says, his deep voice marked by a slight Lithuanian accent. “They (the young players) call me “old man.””
On a team with a total of eight underclassmen, including five freshmen, Jurkunas might appear geriatric to the Tiger “kids.” Not only is he an elderly 23-years old, but a husband as well. The Kaunas, Lithuania native married Clemson student and Charleston native Jill Jarrard last May, becoming the only player on the team with a spouse.
Clemson coaches are expecting Jurkunas to share his playing experiences as he takes on the role as one of the team’s only experienced leaders.
“I was never a person that liked to tell somebody what to do. Right now, Coach Shyatt relies on me to not criticize others, but just tell them what to do because I’ve been around for a while. I was here when Coach Shyatt was here as an assistant coach, so I know what he wants. I just have to try and guide the younger guys in the right direction,” Jurkunas says.
With the Tigers being front-loaded with talent in the front court, the 6-9 Jurkunas will be asked to step outside more this year. Despite his size, he is a capable perimeter player, finishing last season as the team’s second-leading three-point shooter behind Terrell McIntyre.
“Coach Shyatt wants me to play outside more because of the line-up we have. We have a lot of fours and fives- bigger guys- and not many guards. So I may have to play guard more this year than I’ve played in the past,” he says.
Jurkunas says that it will be critical for the Tigers to learn to play with each other this season to be successful.
“You’ve got to get used to different people and you’ve got to find out early who can do what. I played with those other guys (Jamison, McIntyre, Wideman, and Christie) for four years, so in special situations I knew who was going to do what. Right now, it’s going to take a while for us to get used to each other. Hopefully, it won’t take too long,” says Jurkunas.
Jurkunas finds himself in a similar situation this season as he did in 1995, with the only difference being that now he is a grizzled veteran surrounded by youth.
“When I first got here my freshman year, we had seven freshmen and we didn’t have any seniors. That year, people didn’t know what to expect and I think that we fooled a lot of people then by making the NCAA tournament,” he says.
Like in 1995, the Clemson basketball team is once again heading into a season shrouded in uncertainty. Will the Tigers again shock the ACC and make it to the big dance?
Old Man Jurkunas and his young Tigers certainly hope so.