CLEMSON - Oliver Purnell waited a long time to coach in the ACC.
Treks through Old Dominion and Dayton, among other stops, set the stage for his current job in the nation's elite basketball league. But even while working his way into this conference, Purnell was already very aware of what it would take to be successful here.
That's why, two-thirds of the way through his second season at Clemson, Purnell comes across as a grizzled veteran of the ACC wars. Very little he sees these days surprises him.
Even his own team's 1-7 start in league play.
"To say I'm surprised, in the ACC, that we would struggle?...I can't say I'm surprised," Purnell said Monday afternoon. "As much talent as there is in this league it's possible for someone to struggle through half the conference schedule. I wouldn't be surprised if we had won another couple of games, either."
That the Tigers haven't done better than 1-7 (10-10 overall) may not be a surprise to Purnell, but it is a concern.
Not so much in the loss totals. When you rebuild programs, as Purnell has done before, such struggles are to be expected.
But the frustration builds when the one area of Clemson's game which should be consistent - defense - has been anything but during his team's current five-game losing streak. Defense, he believes, should be the one constant - home or away.
And yet the Tigers are prone to lapses - sometimes a half, sometimes only 10 minutes or so - which have played a critical role in their recent struggles.
"We've got to hang our hat on defense," Purnell said. "It's a message we've got to get across, and a message we've got to send out loud and clear. If we're going to change our fortunes we've got to play much better defense throughout a 40-minute basketball game.
"The answer is very clear, what we've got to do, to win ball games. We've got to improve on the defensive end of the floor. We're not taking away (from opponents) things we talk about in game preparation."
Given those recent defensive woes, this may be the worst possible time to catch a Maryland team which seems to be finding its stride.
When the Terrapins (13-5, 4-3) visit Littlejohn Coliseum tonight (7 p.m.), Gary Williams' team comes in boasting back-to-back conference wins over Top 25 teams (then No. 2 Duke and No. 22 Georgia Tech). The Terps have won 4-of-5 overall, and have defeated Clemson 13 consecutive times.
Offensively, Maryland's surge has been led by it's core junior duo of forward Nik Caner-Medley (17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) and guard John Gilchrist (14.2, 4.9). Stopping the Terps' transition game - and Caner-Medley's ability to spot for the 3-pointer out of it - will be the chief defensive task for the Tigers.
But perhaps even more important this game is how well the Tigers handle Maryland's defense - specifically the Terrapins' expected fullcourt pressure on Clemson's young guards.
"They're going to press us," said Purnell. "We've got to handle their pressure and continue to do what we do well on offense, and that's get the ball inside to Sharrod Ford. The jury is still out on if we can handle a team that's really going to pressure us in the backcourt."
- Ford had his 18th career double-double in Saturday's loss to N.C. State, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds. It was his second consecutive double-double, coming off 20 points and 15 rebounds at Miami (Fla.) in the previous game. This is the fourth time in his career that he has had consecutive double-doubles. He has never had three in a row;
- Ford needs 28 points against Maryland to become the 29th player in Clemson history to score 1,000 points. It would be special for Ford to do it against the Terps because he is a native of Suitland, Md.;
- Clemson freshman Cliff Hammonds had 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, four assists and three rebounds against N.C. State in a team high 35 minutes. Hammonds also scored in double figures at Miami last week, and has now made 11 of his last 22 shots from the field, including 6-of-15 on 3-point tries. His efforts earned him ACC Rookie of the Week honors.
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger and TigerNet. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.