Purnell: Tigers Moving in the Right Direction

by - Correspondent -

CLEMSON - When Clemson's basketball season came to an end Monday night in Louisville, the time period for lamenting the loss lasted about as long as the plane ride home.

Then, it was back to work.

As Oliver Purnell says goodbye to three seniors - Akin Akingbala, Shawan Robinson and Steve Allen - he and his coaching staff are already making plans for the 2006-07 basketball season.

A plan for the four incoming freshmen has already been put in place. Next, individual evaluations for the returning Tigers are due. Then it's off to the Final Four for the national coaches convention.

It's the never-ending cycle of Division I basketball. With maybe a moment or two allowed to watch the NCAA basketball tournament this weekend.


"If I'm home channel surfing, I may watch a little," Purnell said Wednesday. "But I won't be making plans to watch it."

The review and assessment of the season just completed had the Tigers continuing to move forward in Purnell's third year. Not, perhaps, as quickly as the coach would like. But moving ahead nonetheless.

The team won 19 games overall, seven in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Both are highs in Purnell's tenure.

No, Clemson didn't make the NCAA tournament. But it did advance in postseason play, making it to the second round of the NIT - also an improvement over last year.

"Progress. It's all about progress," Purnell said. "We didn't achieve all the goals we set down at the beginning of the year, but we achieved a lot of them. Now we have to keep moving in the right direction."

For a while it seemed as if the Tigers' ship might be sinking before the ACC season ever began.

After an 11-0 start, sophomore forward James Mays was declared academically ineligible and missed the rest of the season. It was a devastating blow. Mays was the point man on Clemson's full court press, a hard-nosed rebounder, and an improved offensive presence that promised to make the Tigers a more difficult matchup in the paint.

Instead, with Mays gone, Clemson lost two straight games - one at Georgia, and then a disheartening defeat at home at the hands of Elon.

But instead of folding the tent, Purnell and his staff turned into mad scientists (apologies to Rob Spence). Tinker here. Twist there.

Suddenly, Clemson won two of its first three conference game and three of its first five.

"We had to sort of reinvent ourselves," Purnell said. "We had to move guys around and find the right combinations again. And it's to the player's credit that we stayed afloat."

They did more than stay afloat. They were competitive against the best the conference had to offer. They just didn't win enough games, especially the close ones.

All of which Purnell hopes serves as a learning tool for his players.

"We proved we can compete, and we proved we can win games at the highest level," he said. "Now we have to do it with more consistency. We showed we could win two of three. We closed the season winning four of our last five in the conference.

"Now we need to show we can win eight of 10, or nine of 10. You do that in this conference and you're going to be in good shape."

And so the work continues.

The free throw shooting must improve. Replacing a suddenly-surging Akin Akingbala at center is a priority. Trying to get the incoming freshmen at a point where they can contribute is a task unto itself.

All part of the job when you're rebuilding a program in one of America's toughest conferences.

"It's about hard work," Purnell said. "We've just got to keep working to get better."

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