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Clemson looks to break NCAA Tournament losing streak

Clemson men's basketball coach Oliver Purnell hasn't been able to get his team past the first round for the past two years.
Sunday, March 14, 2010 | 7:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:09 p.m. CDT, Sunday, March 14, 2010
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell watches his team in a 59-57 loss to North Carolina State last Thursday in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. "I guarantee that these guys will be ready to play," Purnell said on Sunday after learning Clemson will play Missouri on Friday in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

CLEMSON, S.C. — Coach Oliver Purnell knows how to get Clemson in the NCAA tournament. Now, he says the Tigers are ready for more.

Clemson earned its third consecutive NCAA berth on Sunday, something it hadn't achieved since current Texas coach Rick Barnes took the Tigers there from 1996-98.

However, Barnes began a legacy with his last appearance in 1998 that Purnell hasn't been able to break yet the past two seasons — losing in the first round.

Two years ago, the Tigers were fresh off a run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament finals and took a No. 5 seed into the NCAAs. However, they fell to Villanova in an upset.

Then last year, Clemson entered as a seventh seed, favored to push past Michigan, which was making its first NCAA appearance in 11 years, into the second round.

The Tigers, though, lost their poise — three-point specialist Terrence Oglesby was kicked out for throwing a deliberate elbow — and the game to extend their NCAA trouble.

Now, Clemson (21-10) is again a No. 7 seed expected to advance past Missouri (22-10) in the East Region in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday.

"I guarantee that these guys will be ready to play," Purnell said.

Ready to succeed could be a different matter.

The Tigers needed a win at Wake Forest last Sunday night to clinch one of the ACC's four byes for the conference tournament, but came up short, 70-65, in a critical spot.

Then Clemson compounded that defeat by falling to lightly regarded North Carolina State, 59-57, to drop out of the ACC tournament early for a second straight season.

"We've got to channel that frustration into hard work," said guard Andre Young.

The losses, however, didn't seem to put Clemson anywhere near the NCAA bubble. Purnell, who watched with his players, administrators and some season-ticket holders at Clemson's Death Valley football stadium, was more focused on what's next than relieved to get in when the school's name popped up more than halfway through the selection show.

"I was sitting here not quite sweating like I was in the past," Purnell said. "And it's hard coming out of the ACC to get into the NCAA tournament, let alone be locks."

Purnell said the No. 7 seeding was a testament to Clemson's schedule, which included victories over NCAA tournament teams Butler, Winthrop, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Florida State.

"That's why I congratulated our guys. They've earned this right and now It's important that we take advantage of it," he said.

A year ago at this time, Clemson was hurt by chemistry issues, star forward Trevor Booker said, players splintering down the stretch instead of coming together.

There's been no such divisions this time, Booker said, and everyone's ready for an NCAA run that'll last longer than one game.

"All that hard work paid off," he said. "Now, we've got a chance to show people that we can make some noise in the tournament."

Booker will have to pick up his play for that to happen. The all-ACC first-team forward was held to a season-low 6 points in the Wake Forest loss. He rebounded with 17 points against North Carolina State in the league tournament, but was just 2 of 8 on foul shots in the two-point defeat.

For Clemson to advance, it'll sort of have to top itself, since Purnell said Missouri and coach Mike Anderson play a similar pressing style to the Tigers. Count on a lot of speed and end-to-end action, Purnell said.

"It'll probably be, on that day, the most entertaining game in the NCAA tournament," he said.

 


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