Out-of-town Q&A: Clemson

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Time to talk Tigers with Maryland getting ready to fly down to Clemson for a game tomorrow night.

That means we bring in Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com to break down Oliver Purnell’s team.

You might recall Larry was with the Charleston Post & Courier when we swapped questions back in September for football, but he’s done what other smart people have done and jumped out of the newspaper business. You can check out some of his work at his new gig with his Eye on the Tigers blog.

Onto three questions about the Tigers:

1. It’s mid-February, and Clemson was 20-3 until losing at Virginia on Sunday. Is it safe to say this is Oliver Purnell’s best team since arriving, or is it about the same as last year’s bunch?

LW: It has the potential to be, which is a surprise to me because I thought they’d really miss Cliff Hammonds, and James Mays to a lesser degree. They can be better, but only when they eliminate the inconsistency demonstrated in recent losses to Florida State (blew a 19-point second-half lead at home) and yesterday’s inexplicable defeat at Virginia. I say “inexplicable” because of the total lethargy they showed in the first half. You have to be ready to play on the road in the ACC, even against a moribund team like Virginia, and the Tigers clearly were not yesterday. This year’s team is better offensively, and at times has been as good defensively. But Virginia killed the Tigers off the dribble while also beating the press for easy baskets.

Quite simply, this team can be very good when it plays with focus and intensity. But the Tigers aren’t talented enough to overcome the lengthy bouts of ineptitude we saw yesterday.

2. What – or, more realistically, who – makes Clemson’s pressure defense work so well, and how effective do you think it will be against a perimeter-oriented team like Maryland?

LW: Oliver Purnell has changed things up this season by varying his pressures, and the different looks have bothered opponents at times. The press was a disaster in the first half at Virginia Tech, so Purnell went to halfcourt trapping off the ball screens and disrupted the Hokies rhythm, sparking a comeback from a 15-point deficit.

The strength of Clemson’s full-court press, when it’s not inflicting early havoc and setting a tone, is the cumulative burden it places on opponents. Even when it doesn’t appear particularly effective early in games, it gradually wears on teams and affects them later when their legs become tired.

Maryland committed 21 turnovers last year when Clemson came from 20 down in College Park and won. Seven of those turnovers came from Vasquez, and the Tigers outshot the Terps 42-32 in the second half.

Trevor Booker has shifted from the rear of the press to the point, guarding the inbounds pass. He’s done a good job of it, and the shift has kept him out of foul trouble. Demontez Stitt has also been solid in the middle as the “quarterback” of the press.

The Tigers are capable of suffering breakdowns in the press, and I think Vasquez’s size and apparent improvement at taking care of the basketball presents a challenge to Clemson — particularly given they’ll be playing just two days after a draining overtime game at Virginia.

3. Trevor Booker is averaging 16.1 points in victories and 10.8 points in losses. How have teams like Wake Forest, North Carolina and Florida State held him in check?

LW: It’s largely the result of a lack of touches. In the games you mentioned (all losses), Booker took a total of 22 shots (9 vs. WF, 6 vs. UNC, 7 vs. FSU).

Opponents have taken conventional measures (fronting the post, double-teams) to keep Booker from getting the ball. His touches were limited in the second half at Virginia, when the Cavaliers began sagging on him.

The Tigers’ guards share a lot of the blame for forcing passes and taking poor passing angles.

Still, Purnell has urged Booker to do more things to create opportunities for himself — offensive rebounds, running the floor, and blocked shots.

Much thanks as always to Larry Williams for taking the time to share some thoughts on Clemson.

Patrick Stevens

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