Oliver Purnell chose not to mortgage the future, opting against signing any of his own players upon his arrival at Clemson in the spring of 2003. The result was a 10-18 season filled with turnover woes that Purnell had never endured in 16 years.
"There wasn't a whole lot we could do when our guard play wasn't what we wanted it to be," Purnell said. "I looked down [the bench] and didn't see much. This year we're deeper. It's not a situation where we don't have talent down there."
This year, Purnell welcomes five recruits, including two possible point guards, in a class that will dramatically change the look of Clemson basketball. The Tigers aren't banking on the freshmen just for the future; they need them immediately for athleticism that should lead to a more up-tempo style.
FRONTCOURTSenior Sharrod Ford emerged as one of the elite post players in the ACC. "At some point during the year, the light went on," Purnell said. "Instead of fading or being frustrated and losing weight, things that happened to him in the past, he went the opposite way."
A junk-food eater in the past, Ford added 10 pounds of strength in the off-season, leaving him with a 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame. He and junior Akin Akingbala are excellent shot-blockers, who will anchor Clemson's defense.
Akingbala, considered a project two years ago, showed signs of developing into an ACC-caliber player. Clemson will need his physical play on defense without forward Chris Hobbs, whose eligibility expired.
Purnell anticipates playing "small and long" with players who are shorter in size but longer in arms and athleticism. "If I had my druthers, we'd run and press 95 percent of the game," Purnell said.
Erratic senior Olu Babalola, the starting small forward last season, will be used as a "running" power forward. Freshman Sam Perry could enter the starting lineup immediately at the three or four positions. Purnell compares Perry to Georgia Tech's Isma'il Muhammad. Cheyenne Moore, another versatile freshman, can play the wing and both guard spots. Like Ford, freshman James Mays runs the court well but lacks Ford's post moves.
BACKCOURTClemson's backcourt was exposed last season. The guards struggled to get the Tigers into their offense, and they could not keep opponents in front of them on defense -- a recipe for disaster.
Sophomore point guard Vernon Hamilton (91 assists, 87 turnovers) returns, but freshman Troy Mathis, a sturdy 6-0, 200 pounds, will likely slide into the starting lineup.
"He's crafty with the ball," Purnell said. "Hopefully that strength will allow him to take care of the basketball and give us some semblance of offensive control."
The turnovers put constant pressure on Clemson's defense last season. Perimeter players Julian Betko, Chey Christie and Lamar Rice have all transferred, opening up more playing time for the freshmen.
Junior Shawan Robinson is a hot-and-cold shooter. He made 37.4 percent of his 3-pointers and scored 24 points in an upset over North Carolina, but he does not create his shot as well as most shooting guards. Still, Robinson will be relied on because he is one of Clemson's few known commodities, particularly on offense. Purnell considers Robinson, Ford and Akingbala his "core" players.
Freshman Cliff Hammonds is a combo guard better suited to play two-guard. Moore, who was Purnell's first commitment, could attack the basket in ways rarely seen at Clemson.
FINAL ANALYSISSay this for the Tigers: At least they won't be stuck in the ACC tournament play-in game again. The addition of Miami and Virginia Tech changed the tournament format and offers Clemson some winnable conference games.
Fifteen victories would be an achievement for the Tigers. So would a road victory. For the first time since the 1943-44 season, Clemson went winless away from home last season.
"If we defend better, get some easy baskets in transition, we have a chance to be better," Purnell said. "And we have to be because the league is not getting any worse. It will be better. It could be significantly better."