COLUMBIA - As Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell rebuilds the Tigers' basketball program, he knows there are several trends which need to be reversed.
One of them is losing to in-state rival South Carolina.
Though the annual meeting between the state's two largest schools has nothing to do with either's conference standing, it remains an important get-together for everyone involved on both sides. Throw in the fact that Clemson has lost the last four meetings to USC, and you can understand the Tigers' itch to turn things around.
"It’s an exciting challenge, another first for this young ball club," Purnell said Friday. "This is the first Clemson – South Carolina game for many of these young guys. So it’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to taking this team down there."
The Tigers (3-1) have succeeded early this year thanks in part to key minutes played by Purnell's four freshmen - Cheyenne Moore, Cliff Hammonds, Sam Perry and James Mays. As a group, the four are more athletic than any Clemson recruiting class in recent memory, and have provided a great deal of energy on the floor - particularly in pressure defense situations.
But if the Tigers are to improve dramatically from last season's 10-18 record, the veterans will have to continue to play key roles. Seniors Sharrod Ford (20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks) and Olu Babalola (17 points, eight rebounds) led the way in Clemson's 80-73 victory over Ohio State earlier this week in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, and got help in the expected steady performance from junior guard Shawan Robinson.
Meshing the two groups together - the old and the young - has been Purnell's task early in the season. And through four games, they seem to be getting the message.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are off to a 4-0 start under Dave Odom. All four of the wins have come from out of the SEC, and all have been by 10 points or more.
Compounding Clemson's difficulties tonight, South Carolina is 20-0 under Dave Odom in the Colonial Center, and 29-1 under Odom in all non-conference games played at home (including the old Carolina Coliseum).
"Obviously we don’t have time to celebrate or rest because we are probably playing the toughest opponent we have all year in South Carolina," said Purnell. "I think this is a team that has some veterans...,but has also added some other pieces. It’s a team of athletes.
"They showed that last year. They have four guys out there that are tremendously quick..."
During the Gamecocks' current four-game winning streak over Clemson, they've outscored the Tigers by an average of 16 points. Last year's margin was 15, 76-61.