Clemson no longer ACC doormat after turnaround under Butler
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson women’s basketball is no longer a doormat for Atlantic Coast Conference teams to walk over, looking for what recently has been essentially an automatic victory.
After 14 consecutive losing seasons, these Tigers are trying to secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
Clemson (19-11) opened ACC Tournament play Thursday with an 80-79 overtime victory over Virginia Tech. The Tigers will face No. 3 Louisville in the quarterfinals Friday. After that comes the anticipated NCAA bid.
“It’s not what we’re focusing on,” Clemson senior Danielle Edwards said. “But we know what’s out there for us.”
The Tigers have had a major turnaround, their nine ACC regular-season victories equal the number of wins they’ve had the previous five years combined. In her first year at Clemson, Amanda Butler was voted the league’s coach of the year and has the Tigers on the verge of their NCAA Tournament bid since 2002.
“There’s just a smile across my face every time I think about it,” Edwards said.
Clemson was among the league’s most successful ACC programs in the late 1980s and 1990s, playing in 14 NCAA tourneys in 15 seasons from 1988 through 2002 under coach Jim Davis. They reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight in 1991 and twice won the ACC Tournament during that stretch.
But Davis’ tenure ended in 2005 after going 8-20 and Clemson sank to the bottom of the ACC with 14 consecutive losing seasons. The Tigers were 9-71 in ACC play the previous five seasons and Butler, who accepted the job last spring , wasn’t sure any fast fixes were ahead.
What she found, though, was a group, led by seniors Edwards and Aliyah Collier, eager to put the past behind and ready to dig in on defense.
The Tigers improved two spots to 10th in scoring defense this season and bettered their scoring margin from minus 21 points a game in 2017-18 to plus three this year. Not everyone can score 20 points a game, Butler said, but “everyone can get their hands up in front of a pass or a shot.”
Clemson is fourth in the country with 345 steals, 90 more than a year ago.
The defensive improvement also triggered an up-tempo game where the Tigers scored 18 points a game more than in 2017-18.
Butler’s analytics includes tracking player deflections and defensive positioning. Edwards said the team’s experienced players took to Butler’s coaching style, which gave them some input into practices.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for our upperclassmen,” Butler said. “They’ve been the personification of resilience.”
Butler, who spent 10 years coaching Florida before she was let go after 2016-17 season, wanted Clemson to create chaos on the court and disrupt opponent’s offensive flow. The players embraced the challenge. Butler remembers a players’ meeting — she regularly lets her team bond or hash things out minus staffers — where they gave her a picture of a group of ducks and called themselves the “dangerous ugly ducklings.”
“‘We don’t do it like everybody else, but when we do it our way, we can be dangerous,'” Butler remembers players telling her.
But the Tigers have done more than just talk.
They beat three ranked teams this season, including sweeping No. 22 Florida State for the first time in 18 years. It’s been 17 years since they finished above .500 in ACC play.
Edwards, a 5-foot-7 guard from Maryland who at 12.9 points a game is one of four double-digit scorers for Clemson, was unsure what to do when Clemson fired coach Audra Smith last March. Teammate Nelly Perry left to join South Carolina this season and Edwards wondered if she should leave as well.
But once Butler arrived, Edwards took to her straightforward approach.
“I wasn’t sure it could happen this fast,” Edwards said. “But we had players who wanted success.”
And Clemson is enjoying one of its best seasons in years.
“We got a bye” in the ACC Tournament, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said excitedly, something that had not happened in his previous six seasons.
Radakovich sees a team that has bonded and exhibits more “camaraderie” than in the past.
One of things that impressed the AD about Butler was the coach did not sit idle during the year after Florida fired her. Instead, Radakovich said she used her coaching sabbatical to visit with the Boston Celtics‘ Brad Stevens and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Billy Donovan (a friend from when he coached Florida) to expand her portfolio.
“She prepared herself when her next opportunity came,” Radakovich said.
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