The restoration of the Clemson women's basketball program is well underway for head coach Itoro Coleman, who enters her third year as the leader of the program. Coleman has worked to change the culture around the program, and in year three, things appear to be looking up.
Coleman's revitalization of the program has been built with well-roundedness in mind. Last fall, the team recorded its highest grade point average in nearly 15 years. They've also upped their footprint in the community, visiting many schools and participating with local charities as Coleman stresses the importance and pillars of what it means to be a Lady Tiger.
"The vision for the program is to restore, renew, and reproduce," said Coleman. "When I think about restoring a program to being a national power, there was an expectation when I first stepped on campus to win. When I got here three years ago, it wasn't there. This year's team definitely embodies that. They want to be the best at everything. They're very competitive, and you can see that in drills, academically, and on the court."
Coleman embraces the competitiveness around the program, and has great hopes for that attitude to spill over to all walks of life for the staff and student-athletes.
"We want to renew that image. When I came here as a player, I knew I had to carry my weight in order for this team to be successful, and the players are feeling that right now."
"What I mean by reproduce is that we want to cultivate and maintain this level of play and expectation every year, and we are well on our way. We've made strides in the classroom and in the community."
Coleman is hoping for all of this to translate to the court, where she enters the 2012-13 season with one of the youngest groups in school history. With the graduation of four-year letterwinners Shaniqua Pauldo and Lindsey Mason in May, Clemson enters this season without a senior on the roster.
Quinyotta Pettaway and Chancie Dunn, now juniors, are the senior-most players on the team. All told, Clemson's players have totaled 10 seasons of playing experience among ten players, an average of 0.833 seasons per player. This proportion is the third-lowest in the NCAA entering the year.
What that statistic does not account for, however, is the amount of time that each of those players has seen in the past. Of the seven returning players, six averaged 15 minutes or more per game, and five of those played more than 24 minutes per game last season, when the youthful Lady Tigers finished 6-22.
"I don't like to lose, so that's frustrating," said Coleman. "But, with the type of work we've been putting in, I can see the big picture, and I understand that it takes time. I understand the type of patience that it takes to rebuild, but as a competitor, I don't like to lose, and neither do these players. We need to do whatever we can do to change that."
The first step for Coleman has been to bring in high-caliber players with experience in winning and with great talent. Her 2011 recruiting class ranked 30th in the nation, and the crop saw huge minutes as freshmen last season, totaling 68 starts and 3,004 minutes. Nikki Dixon, originally recruited for her defensive ability at Milton High School, took over on the offensive end, leading Clemson at 12.4 points per game last season.
Dixon played exactly 900 minutes at the wing guard positions, and worked at both ends. She was second among all league freshmen in scoring and her 2.6 steals per game was tops among freshmen and sixth in the ACC overall. Dixon drained 32 three-pointers, just one fewer than classmate Kelly Gramlich, who played more than 700 minutes on the wing.
Gramlich is an excellent shooter from long range, and put up more than 20,000 shots in the offseason, and will be relied upon heavily to help spread the floor and put down open looks in transition.
Chelsea Lindsay logged more than 900 minutes at point guard for the Lady Tigers, finishing sixth in the league at 32.6 minutes per game. She led all ACC freshmen in minutes played, minutes per game, assists, and assist-to-turnover ratio, and gives Clemson a terrific option to run the point as a sophomore.
Also in the class were Natiece Ford and Deja Hawkins. Ford entered as Clemson's highest-rated prospect, and saw action in all 28 games at small and power forward spots. Hawkins saw limited play due to an injury, but her post presence is unmistakable, as she's a strong rebounder with soft hands.
Indeed, Coleman's 2011 freshman class grew up quickly, and she'll need the same from this year's group.
"One of the challenges is that I need my freshmen to grow up fast," said Coleman. "Even though we have a lot of experience coming back, we are fairly young. The role that we talk about is to get better every day, and to control the things that we can control."
Defensively, Clemson has improved greatly over the Coleman's first two seasons. Opponent scoring average dropping from 69.2 to 65.1 points per game, and field goal percentage defense went from .417 in 2009-10 to .403 in 2010-11, and finally to .382 last season. Three-point field goal percentage defense also improved from .332 in 2010-11 to .306 in 2011-12. With the added length and number of players, Coleman will begin to institute her pressure defense, and hope to drop these levels even further.
"We want to hang our hats on defense. Everything that we've been doing thus far has really concentrated on our defense - our help side, our ball pressure, and what we're doing in the half court."
If they're looking for an indication of the future rewards of the defense, they need not look farther than Coleman's signature win thus far, a 52-47 win at No. 21 North Carolina last season. The Tigers held the Tar Heels to their lowest scoring output at home in school history, and a 1-17 mark behind the arc.
Anchoring the post defense is junior Quinyotta Pettaway, who led Clemson in rebounding a season ago during a breakout sophomore campaign. She tallied 9.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while also blocking 1.1 shots per game. Her length and quickness coupled with her leaping ability will again likely ave Pettaway amongst the league leaders in rebounding.
Fellow junior Chancie Dunn has drawn praise from teammates and coaches early in the preseason for her improvement on both ends. She's worked on a more consistent jump shot, and is the team's eldest stateswoman, at just more than 1100 career minutes played.
With the solid foundation of the players in place, Coleman welcomes the nation's 16th-ranked recruiting class, which includes what Coleman hopes is a franchise-player in Jonquel Jones. Jones, a 6-4 wing from the Bahamas, attended Riverdale Baptist High School in Maryland, and shot up recruiting boards as last season progressed.
"Jonquel can play the two through the four, and we'll use her that way. She's so long, and creates so many mismatches. She can shoot the jumper, she can shoot the pull-up, she'll get in there and rebound, and has a great all-around game."
Jones was rated as the 17th-best player in the nation by ESPN Hoopgurlz, and the No. 6 post player overall.
Joining her in the freshman class is Danaejah Grant (Piscataway, NJ), who was a four-star prospect and ranked 65h nationally by Hoopgurlz. A slasher and scorer, Grant has the ability to put points on the board in a hurry, and she'll be looked at early and often.
Four-star prospects Aisha Turner, a point guard, and Nyilah Jamison-Myers, a post player, were the other gems of the recruiting cycle. Turner is quick and has great floor vision, and Jamison-Myers is an immediate impact player on the defensive end and rebounding with her height (6-3) and length.
Another sleeper for the Lady Tigers is Charmaine Tay. Tay will sit out the fall semester after her transfer from Louisville. She'll bring grit and experience to the guard spot, as she played on Louisville's Sweet 16 team in 2010-11 before her move to Clemson. Tay was a high school All-American, and ranked as the 17th-best player in the 2010 recruiting cycle.
With many of the foundation pieces in place, Itoro Coleman is excited about this season. The Lady Tigers are poised to make a jump, and can build on the notion that in 2013-14, they'll have the exact same group as well.
"We've been able to take a lot of strides in recruiting," said Coleman. "We are definitely attracting the types of players that are going to help us return to national prominence."
If they keep up this pace, the rebuilding effort may not take as long as originally intended.