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Competing on the road

Clemson won an ACC game last night (!), beating Maryland 97-93. Most coverage of the game, including the local story in the Washington Post, naturally focuses on the performance of Maryland. The folks at the ACC Hoops Blog and The Duke Basketball Report write from a similar perspective, puzzled by the "baffling" up- and-down nature of the Terrapins. But I see a different, more interesting story unfolding from last night's game.

Something is stirring in the wreck of a program that is Clemson basketball. What's the evidence? Here: this is the second ACC road victory for Clemson this season. Arghh, you say, what is so special about two road wins? Well, I've spent an embarrassingly large share of my life thinking about the mystery of the "home court advantage." My weak mind has concluded that it's a multi-faceted phenomenon, which is itself a weak conclusion. But one facet of the phenomenon stands out to me: the nature of teams that can win on the road.

Some teams crack on the road - they lose the belief that they can win, and they fail to execute. In basketball this is particularly evident. A club that cracks loses its identity as a team, and falls apart into an uncoordinated group of individuals. I've seen this plenty of times watching Clemson basketball over the years. The inability of past Clemson teams to win on the road in the ACC suggests to me that there are two things common to teams that crack: poor chemistry and bad coaching.

At Clemson, I've watched Cliff Ellis, Rick Barnes, Larry Shyatt, and now Oliver Purnell coach the Tigers. None of the three coaches prior to Purnell - save Ellis' championship club with Dale Davis and Elden Campbell - took solid teams on the road. At a barbecue one time I had the opportunity to ask Larry Shyatt - a nice guy but not a good head coach - about the problem of winning games on the road in college basketball. Larry's answer - and we chatted for some time about this, so it wasn't rushed - essentially restated the question: "gosh, it's really really tough," something like that. He didn't have a clue, and it showed in the blowout losses that came on the road.

Purnell is different. Apart from the drubbing at Chapel Hill last Saturday - where everybody is getting clobbered - the Tigers have been in every game on the road this season. They led at Duke with ten minutes left in the opener. They lost on the last shot at Virginia Tech, a loss thought risible before it dawned on the cynics that the Hokies could play. Buzzer-beaters then failed to drop at Virginia and Miami. Something had changed: being in road games in the last minute is not the history of Clemson basketball. Nevertheless, Purnell's young Tigers (three freshmen started last night's game) had trouble closing the deal. Until last night.

This quote from The State newspaper suggests that preparation, i.e. coaching, had something to do with it:

[Purnell] laid out a very clear plan and outlined every possible scenario that could have happened in this game ... When we were in this situation tonight, you could tell the players were saying, 'We know what to do.' They followed the script 100 percent.

This is the first time the Tigers have won two ACC road games since 1997-98. It's no accident. Show me a team that can win on the road, and you are showing me a well-coached team. Last night's performance convinced me that Purnell will win at Clemson.

Addendum: I should have stated explicitly that my hypothesis has to do with the ability of lesser teams, or underdogs, to win away from home. The Dukes and Carolinas of the world routinely do well on the road with superior talent and coaching (with the exception of the Doherty disaster, which helps make the case).