The lingering question following Clemson's early exits from the ACC and NCAA tournaments has to do with the Tigers' style of play: Can a team play full-court basketball throughout the regular season and retain enough energy to advance in postseason play?
The question is pertinent because it not only applies to Clemson basketball but to South Carolina hoops as well. Oliver Purnell has constructed a consistently successful program due in large part to his teams' style of play. Darrin Horn is in the building stages of a similar project with his teams attempting to play a baseline-to-baseline game.
Yet Purnell's teams have lost three consecutive opening-round games in the NCAA tournament, and Horn's teams have faded down the stretch of the regular season in each of his two seasons.
Both coaches say a cumulative effect of fatigue is merely an excuse.
"One of the toughest things you face sometimes is kids reading so much about being tired and worn down, and a lot of times kids are looking for excuses and looking for a path of least resistance," Purnell says. "One of the issues in our country with our youth is bearing down and working hard and being confident."
The reality is the frenetic style of play desired by both Purnell and Horn represents the best way for their respective programs to level the field in recruiting.
Purnell will never win head-to-head recruiting battles with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski or North Carolina's Roy Williams, just as Horn has little or no chance of beating Kentucky's John Calipari or Florida's Billy Donavan for top-level high school talent.
The alternative is to establish a style of basketball that is appealing to high school players and then to recruit athletes to fit that style. It is a blueprint for success that has worked previously at both Clemson and USC.
At Clemson from 1976 through 1998, Bill Foster, Cliff Ellis and Rick Barnes used similar tactics in building programs that enjoyed a modicum of success. Frank McGuire's accomplishments are well documented at USC, where he won by recruiting players who brought their street-wise, New York style of basketball to the South.
It is all about building a program, and not merely assembling teams from season to season. That takes time. Purnell has needed seven seasons to firmly establish his program among the better in the ACC. It might take Horn as long to do the same at USC in the SEC.
With a 9-7 mark in ACC play this season, Purnell became the first Clemson coach to register three consecutive winning records in league play. The Tigers' 28-20 regular-season conference record in those three seasons ties for third-best with Maryland, behind perennial powers Duke (37-11) and North Carolina (32-16).
Purnell has accomplished the unthinkable at Clemson - three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances - by following solid recruiting classes with solid recruiting classes. None of those groups was ranked among the nation's elite, yet all included a mix of players who fit perfectly into the system Purnell employs. The program's trademark is a full-court, trapping defense that forces turnovers, as well as a faster-paced game.
Beyond that, Purnell's teams the past three seasons have established a mentality that they will not be outworked. They play tenaciously on defense and attempt to attack the basket as often as possible on offense.
"I'm not backing down from that," Purnell says. "I'm not backing down from the need of our kids to learn the value of hard work."
It is the same mentality Horn established with his first two teams. Although outmanned more often than not, seldom did an opponent play harder than USC. Horn's limitations with personnel - a key injury and a defection from the program - severely limited how his team could play this season.
Even so, Horn said he has not wavered in his belief that his system will work in the long run.
"Absolutely, in terms of playing fast and pressing and all that, I am absolutely convinced and committed to it," Horn said. "It goes far beyond the actual basketball part right now. You need something to recruit to. You need an exciting style. You need something that creates depth."
It is what Purnell has created at Clemson. There is every reason to believe his Tigers will extend their school-record streak of 20-plus win seasons to four next season. That also likely will mean a four consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, something Clemson fans now have come to expect.
"We're sitting here today with six straight appearances in postseason play, four straight 20-win seasons, three straight NCAA appearances -- and only 21 teams in America have done that," Purnell says. "One of the major reasons is our style of play."
A similar style of play will bring the same kind of success to USC as Horn continues to develop his program. Rest assured, his players -- like Clemson's -- will never tire of playing in the postseason.
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