CLEMSON - It wasn't all that long ago that the Clemson men's basketball team struggled for a foothold on the bottom rungs of the ACC ladder.
But during the past six seasons, coach Oliver Purnell has elevated the program to the point where the Tigers have grown accustomed to a view from near the top.
Now, with the opening practice for the 2009-10 season a week away, Purnell is hoping for another team that will embrace his challenge for upward mobility.
"We want to continue to climb because we feel like we've got a lot of climbing left to do," Purnell said Tuesday. "You want to be in position each and every year to win the ACC."
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The Tigers haven't been far off lately. Clemson's 72 victories during the past three seasons rank third in the ACC during that span, trailing North Carolina and Duke, and the Tigers advanced to the ACC tournament championship game in 2008. Last year marked the fifth consecutive season the Tigers had a better winning percentage than the previous season.
"Every year you do that, it gets a little bit harder," Purnell said. "But this is the time of year when it's really fun to be a basketball coach."
Helping to keep things "fun" for Purnell will be Trevor Booker, who returns for his senior season as a preseason All-American, according to several publications. Purnell stated after last season's 23-9 season and first-round exit from the NCAA tournament that all positions on the team would be up for grabs - except Booker's.
"He is perhaps the best returning player in the league, so that's a nice place to begin," Purnell said. "But we need to go 10 or 11 (players) deep."
Purnell will be seeking plenty of answers during the next several weeks, but with several players with starting experience and the most highly rated group of recruits in program history in the fold, he's looking forward to assembling a team capable of securing the school's third consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
"This could be the most talented group we've had," Purnell said. "It's real simple what you've got to do to win in the ACC - put together some good recruiting years, then grow them up."
Some will grow up in a hurry. Clemson is set for a Disneyland trip to Anaheim, Calif., during the Thanksgiving holiday to play in the 76 Classic, an eight-team tournament with a talent-laden field; six of the teams earned NCAA tournament berths last season. The Tigers' first game will be against Texas A&M, and UCLA and West Virginia also are in Clemson's bracket.
"It's ambitious, but it's also a good measuring stick for us," Purnell said. "It's one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country, and all three of our games will be on national TV."
Purnell said he expects this year's team to be better defensively, but with the graduation of K.C. Rivers - the top 3-point shooter in school history - and the early departure of Terrence Oglesby for a pro career in Europe, outside shooting looms as Clemson's biggest question mark.
"I expect to see more zone (defense)," Purnell said. "I think anybody would do that against us."