NORTH AUGUSTA — It has been a tough stretch for the Clemson women’s basketball program. While most of Clemson’s athletic teams have enjoyed great success in recent years, the women’s basketball team hasn’t joined the party.
The Tigers haven’t posted a winning record or played in a postseason tournament since the 2003-04 season. Following eight years of struggles, Clemson might have hit rock bottom last season when it posted a 6-22 record and head coach Itoro Coleman was fired.
Now a new regime, led by recently hired head coach Audra Smith, is trying to build a foundation for future success. The best way to rebuild is through an influx of new players. Smith and her assistant coaches have been busy scouting and recruiting some of the nation’s finest prep stars since taking over at Clemson in April. In early July, Smith announced the addition of Abrea Harris, Sade Chatman and Paige Mosley to the program and she, as well as her staff, has remained active on the recruiting trail.
Smith and assistant coach Marc Wilson have been at Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta this week. They’ve been at the Nike Nationals, scouting players who could be future additions to the Tigers and help Smith with her rebuilding job.
“We’re trying to change the atmosphere,” Wilson said Monday, as he’s preparing for his fifth season serving as an assistant to Smith, joining her after she left UAB for Clemson. “We want to condition the kids to Coach Smith, her philosophy and ideals.”
Wilson said those core principals include:
• Hard work
• Aggressive defense
Those principals have helped Smith compile a 138-138 record in nine seasons as the head coach at UAB, where she also had to rebuild a struggling program. She took over a team that had accumulated a 29-54 record in the three seasons prior to her arrival, and brought the program up to .500 in year two and to the postseason in year three.
In her final three seasons at UAB, Smith’s squads posted a 56-38 record – playing in the WNIT and winning the WBI in the 2010-11 season. By comparison, Clemson has struggled to a 29-60 mark in the same time span.
Wilson said he expects the changing the fortunes of the Clemson program to be a challenge, and not just because of the Tigers’ struggles. He said Smith and her staff will have to be prepared for making the switch from UAB, a mid-major program, to the top level of women’s college basketball. He said playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which he referred to as the “premier conference in the country,” as another challenge.
“We’re going to have to work hard, work smart and get a little lucky,” said Wilson, who added that the competition Smith’s staff is focused on is among only Clemson players. “We have to win practice first. Get the trust of the players and have them learn Coach Smith’s system and work hard. If we win practice first, the other things will come.”
An infusion of more top-flight players will certainly help Clemson. Wilson said that the Nike Nationals in North Augusta is the top tournament of the summer. He said it features great talent, but boasts enough players for everyone, not just the elite teams but all college programs. He said he’s been coming to the tournament since his UAB days and appreciates that the location of the event isn’t too far from Clemson’s campus.
“It’s always good to be close to campus,” said Wilson, explaining that the confluence of college teams in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia helps adds greater importance to the Nike Nationals because so many participants will remain in the area for their college careers. “This is the premier tournament for basketball. There are a lot of great ones throughout the summer, but this is the premier one.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.