GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Clemson fans might not recognize Greg Buckner when he takes the floor Friday night at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Gone is his trademark goatee, a look Buckner has sported since his high school days.
"I wanted to shave it off last season but coach (Rick) Barnes wouldn't let me," Buckner said a few weeks ago at the Atlantic Coast Conference's Operation Basketball. "He said if we started losing, it would be my fault. If we lose this year, then it's his coaching. I'm playing without it."
Nobody expects the Tigers -- who open with North Carolina-Wilmington at home before heading to a tournament in Fairbanks, Alaska -- to do much losing this season. Ranked fifth nationally in the preseason poll, Clemson returns nine of its top 10 players from last year's 23-10 club that reached the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
Foremost among those familiar faces is the freshly shaven mug belonging to Buckner. Clemson's only senior and leading scorer (15.6 points per game) plans to build on a summer spent expanding his game and his horizons.
The 6-foot-4 Buckner set out to improve his shooting range. Long praised for his defense, passing and post-up scoring, he spent long hours in the gym launching bombs from beyond the 3-point arc.
He got a chance to test his new skill late this summer with the United States team that won the gold medal the World University Games. He spent two weeks training with the all-star team in Peoria, Ill., then another in Sicily, Italy, where he was the club's third-leading scorer.
Regrettably, there wasn't much time for sightseeing. ("We didn't do too much away from basketball," Buckner said. "It was all business.") But there were plenty of opportunities to sight 3-point bombs previously considered unthinkable.
This "new" Buckner should appeal to Clemson fans as well as NBA scouts.
"Coach Barnes sat me down and said if I wanted to play in that league (the NBA), I'd have to prove to the scouts that I could shoot on a consistent basis," said Buckner, a career 25 percent (31-for-123) 3-point shooter. "A lot of people told me that. If I improved my shooting and continued to improve me defense and go after the ball, I'd have an excellent chance of getting to the pros."
With Merl Code and his 125 career threes gone to graduation, the Tigers may use Buckner more at shooting guard. That should mean more chances to back opposing 2-guards close to the basket for easy turnaround shots.
"Buck has been our leader for three years, our go-to guy for three years," Barnes said. "He's been in every big game we've played. He's worked hard to expand his game. Playing Buck some at 2-guard really creates some mismatches for guards in this league."
Buckner, a product of Hopkinsville, Ky., will still see plenty of time at small forward, his natural position. Junior guard Johnny Miller, a transfer from Temple, and freshman guard Jason Pryor have outstanding shooting range.
Miller once made eight 3-pointers in a single NCAA Tournament game against Cincinnati's stingy defense. Troubled in the preseason by a sore knee, Miller could thrive once he's healthy.
Pryor averaged 37.7 points and nine assists as a senior in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where he attended the same high school as Danny Wuerffel.
Wherever he plays, Buckner won't shy away from the added burden of his final college season.
"I like pressure," he said. "A lot of guys in this world don't like pressure, but I do."
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