A simple twist of fate NCAA: It's not a matter of what Clemson has done differently, but what its opponents have not done in the tournament.

March 20, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- After a 15-point loss to Maryland in the opening round of the ACC tournament two weeks ago, Clemson coach Rick Barnes sat in his team's dressing room at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum wondering if the Tigers would make another cameo in the NCAA tournament.

Their free-throw shooting was a mess.

Their defense was a myth.

Their confidence was a memory.

"We're going to have to do something or it's going to be a short month of March," Barnes said at the time.

So what is Clemson doing still playing when nearly everybody else in the ACC has gone home? What have the No. 4 seed Tigers done to turn things around with victories over No. 13 seed Miami of Ohio and fifth seed Tulsa in the first two rounds of the Midwest Regional?

Nothing.

Though it made some big free throws down the stretch to beat the Golden Hurricane in the second round at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., Clemson (23-9) followed an orange brick road to the Alamodome for tonight's Sweet 16 matchup with top seed Minnesota (29-3).

The Tigers readily admitted that three early fouls on Tulsa's Shea Seals had as much to do with the All-America's five-point performance as their defense. As for their confidence, it is certainly much higher than it was after losing to the Terrapins in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

"That was our low point," Barnes said after practice yesterday. "It's funny, a lot of people at the university were saying after that game that we didn't have as good a season as they thought we would. But now it's a little over a week later, and everyone is happy."

So why did the Tigers get this far for the first time since Tate George's last-second jumper beat them in the East Regional semifinals seven years ago? It hasn't been their offense. In its two NCAA tournament wins, Clemson has missed 68 of 110 field goals, including 19 of 24 three-pointers, and has missed 20 of its 64 free throws. But the Tigers have committed only 20 turnovers.

"Our offense hasn't been very good," Barnes said with a laugh.

In truth, the reasons the Tigers are still playing while four of the other five ACC teams that made the field of 64 are gone have to do with the way Barnes put together this team when he went to Clemson from Providence three years ago.

The Tigers don't rely too much on one player, as Wake Forest did on Tim Duncan and Maryland did on Keith Booth. Nor do they count on their perimeter game as much as Duke and Virginia did. Not that some think they will only go as far as 5-9 point guard Terrell McIntyre will take them.

"When we were struggling, we were relying too much on Terrell and Greg [Buckner]," said Barnes, alluding to a stretch that included four defeats in six games before the NCAA tournament. "When we play well, we have a lot of people help us off the bench. That way we can work so much harder."

Said McIntyre, a sophomore who along with Buckner was named second-team all-ACC: "We're not going to win because I'm scoring a lot of points. We're going to win because we have a lot of people stepping up, because I'm giving the team good leadership and we're playing aggressively on defense."

Maryland was the last team to shut down McIntyre, and it came after he had dominated the Terrapins during the regular season. They rotated two big guards, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Matt Kovarik, on McIntyre and used the other four players to help.

The way McIntyre played against Maryland didn't bother Barnes -- he finished with nine points and eight assists -- as much as the rest of the Tigers did. After that game, Barnes went back to the team's hotel and met with several players individually. The players then met as a team later that night.

"I told them it was up the players to decide what kind of season it was going to be," Barnes said. "I told them what I wanted them to do, but that it was up to them if we did it."

Asked if he thought he and his teammates have become mentally tougher over the past two weeks, Buckner said, "We won't know unless we beat these guys."

Tonight's first game is a rematch of the championship game of this season's San Juan Shootout, won by the Gophers, 75-65. In the second game tonight, No. 2 seed UCLA (23-7) meets No. 6 seed Iowa State (22-8). The winners will play Saturday for a chance to go to the Final Four.

"They have improved a lot during the season," Minnesota coach Clem Haskins said yesterday. "They have a lot of depth to go with the starting five. They had some players injured in the earlier meeting that are healthy now."

He was talking about their bodies.

He could have been talking about their minds.

It's remarkable how quickly things can change from one game, in a little less than two weeks.

NCAA tournament

Today's games

Midwest

Minnesota vs. Clemson, 7: 55 p.m., chs. 13, 9

UCLA vs. Iowa State, 10: 25 p.m.*

West

Utah vs. Stanford, 7: 40 p.m.

Kentucky vs. St. Joe's, 10: 10*, chs. 13, 9

Tomorrow's games

East

Texas vs. Louisville, 7: 39 p.m.

North Carolina vs. Cal, 10: 09*, chs. 13, 9

Southeast

Kansas vs. Arizona, 7: 55 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Providence vs. Chattanooga, 10: 25 p.m.*

* -- approximate time

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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