Brown: Rededicated Clemmons bringing the hustle
IOWA CITY, Ia. – It was a routine in-bounds pass. A play that's often taken for granted during the ebb and flow of a basketball game.
But Anthony Clemmons didn't take it for granted. Iowa's junior guard contested the pass, intended for North Dakota State's Carlin Dupree. Clemmons jumped to tip it near half-court, then tipped it again before finally making the steal and heading up court. All Dupree could do was grab his arm and foul him.
And like the baseball player who makes a great defensive play, then homers to lead off the next inning, Clemmons swished a 3-pointer on the first-half possession he worked so hard to get. It was the highlight play in Iowa's 87-56 victory over the Bison Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"Those are the type of plays I need to make," Clemmons said. "When you think about it, those are winning plays."
They are the kind of hustle plays this Iowa team needs going forward, plays that were missing down the stretch last season.
"That, quite frankly, is why he's in the starting lineup," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "He's going to make those kind of plays. And it's infectious to the rest of the team."
Heading into the season, McCaffery figured Josh Oglesby or Peter Jok would be his starting off-guard. Not Clemmons, who scored 11 points — his second straight double-figure outing – and made a career-high three 3-pointers Monday. Clemmons has five triples in the first two games. He had six last season, when his confidence — and playing time — vanished.
"I don't think anybody thought he was going to be a starter," McCaffery said. "Not really in my thought process."
The Clemmons reclamation project is the feel-good story of this program in the early going. Underrated at Sexton High School in Lansing, Mich. — he played in the shadow of Michigan State's Denzel Valentine — McCaffery liked Clemmons' game enough to offer a scholarship.
Clemmons started 13-of-38 games as a freshman, averaged 4.3 points and lived up to his reputation of being a good defender. But last season, Clemmons fought a sophomore slump. McCaffery's four-guard rotation late in the season didn't include Clemmons, who had been replaced by Jok.
But instead of taking the easy route, transferring and leaving a long list of excuses in his rear-view window, Clemmons rededicated himself to the game. Now, two games into this season, the Hawkeyes look much better for it.
"That's a rare thing these days," McCaffery said. "He didn't blame anybody."
Hustle plays like the one Clemmons made Monday will come in handy when the Hawkeyes square off with No. 10 Texas Thursday at the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Clemmons will be challenged by jet-quick Longhorns point guard Isaiah Taylor.
"Texas is a good program, it's been a good program for years," Clemmons said. "I'm looking forward to it."
So Clemmons' confidence is back. His 3-point shooting — he's five of six through two games — is as unexpected as his starting role.
"That's how you have to shoot," Clemmons said. "You have to know it's going in. Even if it doesn't, you have to have confidence to take another."
Confidence. It's back for this soft-spoken guard. So is his smile, which disappeared last season. Clemmons is having fun playing basketball again.
"This is something I've been wishing for, for a long time," Clemmons said. "I'm just trying to enjoy every moment I can, and play like it's my last game."
If Clemmons continues to play this way, McCaffery will be smiling about his surprise starter for weeks to come.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.