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Behold Those Tigers
Kelli Anderson
January 20, 1997
Surprising Clemson has gone from perennial ACC doormat to the No. 3 team in the nation
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January 20, 1997

Behold Those Tigers

Surprising Clemson has gone from perennial ACC doormat to the No. 3 team in the nation

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But Barnes didn't know how depleted the program was. In his first meeting with the players, only eight showed up. Absent were stars Sharone Wright, who had decided to leave early for the NBA, and Devin Gray, who had suffered a heart attack and would play just seven games all year. "I told those eight—some of whom I didn't even recognize—that they would be proud to wear a Clemson uniform," says Barnes. "The arrests and bad things of the past would happen no more. They would not miss class, and they, would sit in the first three rows of the classroom and be involved. They were to acknowledge people on the street. And believe me, they were about to become the best-conditioned team on the planet."

After a summer of intensive workouts, there were only five players left. As the foundation of the new program, they will forever be known as the Slab Five. "That summer was pure hell," says Code. "We were running five days a week, lifting five days a week and doing stadium stairs in 100-degree heat. But we had such limited talent, we had to be in the best shape of anybody in the country."

That fall brought the addition of Buckner and Iker Iturbe, a slick 6'7" passing forward from Spain, and the Tigers did the only things they could do well: They held the ball and played defense like crazy. They scored only 64.1 points per game, but they allowed just 62.5. Defying all predictions, they won their first 10 games and five others, beat Duke twice and earned a bid to the NIT. Buckner became the first Clemson player named ACC Rookie of the Year.

"That team will always be special to me," says Barnes. "The players created a love affair with the community. They were a throwback: They dived into the stands for loose balls, they played selflessly, they had no stars. It was my most enjoyable year in coaching."

If that team was Barnes's greatest success on the court, Buckner may be his greatest success off it. Born to a 14-year-old mother in the projects of Hopkinsville, Buckner battled severe asthma as a child. Ignored by the in-state powers—and just about everybody else—he signed with Barnes when Barnes was still at Providence and followed him to Clemson when Providence found he had not met a foreign language requirement and released him from his letter of intent. "I knew Coach Barnes would make me work," says Buckner. "I needed someone to push me and not let me loaf."

Buckner's on-court improvement since coming to Clemson, he estimates, is about "200 percent." Off the court, says Tigers assistant coach Larry Shyatt, "his turnaround in terms of maturity has been 180 degrees." During his freshman year Buckner had so much trouble adjusting to college that he seriously considered quitting school, but instead he stuck with it and led the young starting lineup (four freshmen and a sophomore) to 18 wins and Clemson's fifth NCAA appearance. Buckner, a management major, made the honor roll last semester and hopes to go to dental school someday. "I have to give Coach Barnes a lot of credit," he says. "He made me do it, and for that I thank him."

The last few years have represented something of a turnaround as well for Barnes, a native of Hickory, N.C., who before returning to the South spent six years at Providence battling the ghost of former Friars coach Rick Pitino. Though Barnes took Providence to three NCAAs and two NITs, his style never really clicked with the fans. "He was a 35-ish guy trying to prove himself," says Shyatt, who has assisted Barnes with both the Friars and the Tigers. "He was extremely intense. I feel sorry for the players at Providence who didn't get to play for Rick the way he is now."

When it comes to basketball, Barnes is still an exacting perfectionist. "If he wants something done on the court, he is not the reasoning type," says Code. "But off the court, he's a big kid."

Barnes is not just a kid. He's Bart Simpson in sweats, short-sheeting players' beds, applying toothpaste to his assistants' telephone receivers, popping out from behind filing cabinets to scare sports information directors. "When I came here I decided the one thing I was going to do was have fun," says Barnes. "I definitely don't take myself too seriously. After all, this isn't about coaching. It's about the players."

And that realization, you could say, has been the key to his success.

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