The Tiger basketball team heads into the 2011-2012 season coming off a successful, somewhat surprising, 2010-11 campaign where they finished 22-12 overall and 9-7 in ACC play, good for 4th in the conference. The highlight of the season was Clemson's first NCAA tournament victory since the 1996-1997 season under Rick Barnes. Unfortunately our run was cut short in the next round, partially due to the quick turnaround. Brad Brownell is back for his second year at the helm and will look to keep the momentum trending upwards in his second season.
Here is our season review at the end of the last season. So far, leading up to this season, we've examined the schedule and talked in depth about our roster.
Brownell likes to run a classic motion offense with lots of movement caused by down-screens and screens away. With Jerai Grant gone and Devin Booker and Milton Jennings playing the 4/5, I expect to see a much more active motion offense this year due to the versatility of Booker and Jennings. I think last year with Grant, Brownell wasn't comfortable enough with Grant on the perimeter, which led to less down screens and more standing around. It was also evident that he preached more fundamentals at the beginning of the season, and less offensive strategy and plays. Towards the end, you saw the latter pick up considerably, but he knows we are not there yet offensively. I hope to see improved execution on the offense end, a lot of which will hinge on improved post play by Booker and Jennings. This offense is still missing a talented 2-guard that has the size and skill to come off screens and knock down jumpers. We will be monitoring T.J. Sapp to see if he can be that guy.
Brownell's defense is mainly tight man/man with significant ball pressure. I was pleasantly surprised with his ability to throw in an occasional zone (mostly 2-3, but I saw a little 1-3-1) as a changeup to confuse offenses last year. Just like any other sport, you have to be able to adapt your scheme based on what the other team is trying to do to you.
There is reason to be optimistic with this Clemson team. Clemson returns 4 out of their top 6 players from last year in Andre Young, Tanner Smith, Booker, and Jennings. These guys aren't the most talented in the ACC, but they are very experienced and should be talented enough to keep Clemson in the top half of the conference. The conference is still down from where it used to be a few years ago. It shouldn't be any better this year than it was last year....which was pretty bad. We need to take advantage while we can.
Recent reports on Booker and Jennings claim that both guys worked hard over the summer, focusing on their ball handling and outside shots. This is a red flag and is something we will be monitoring throughout the year. We DO NOT need our only viable inside scoring threats honing their perimeter games. We need these guys working on their post games and boxing out. Booker is in desparate need of a jump hook. Jennings has had a lot of trouble finishing with contact inside. I'd much rather have heard that they were working on those issues. If Booker and Jennings would rather float out to the perimeter than bang down low, this team will not make much noise.
There are reasons to be concerned as well. Clemson's two best players from last year, Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant have exhausted their eligibility. Stitt is the tougher guy to replace of the two. He was the only player on the roster that could create his own shot. He put up points in a variety of ways; taking all the way to the hole, finishing with pull-ups, or using his improved range. That will be missed, as Clemson doesn't have a proven commodity that can do all of those things.
Grant is a big loss too. He was Clemson's best post player, rebounder, and shot blocker. He didn't have an array of offensive arsenal, but did use good positioning and hard work to score inside. I'm not sure if either Booker or Jennings will put up the same numbers that Grant did last year, but each should increase their effectiveness and help mitigate the loss. Clemson did show in all 3 games against UNC last year that they can compete at a high level even without Grant's presence, as he was completely negated by UNC's size. Clemson's success this year is going to hinge on the production of Booker and Jennings.
Zavier Anderson is also gone due to graduation, while Cory Stanton decided to transfer in the offseason. I fully expect the freshmen guards to be able to come in this year and perform at least as well as these guys did last year. At the very least, blood pressure will be lower with the freshmen on the floor.
Brownell on his Freshmen
"The exhibition was good for those guys to play as much as they did. Good for them to get game experience. They all have certain strengths and weaknesses. has been one of our better defensive guys, but he didn’t play as well as we would’ve liked against Queens. He’ll have an opportunity to play more than other guys.
K.J. McDaniels is a terrific athlete. He’s still learning how to be a complete player. He has a lot of things to learn but his athletic tools are high. The faster he absorbs everything, the more he’ll play.
Bernard Sullivan started slower than I would’ve thought, but he’s picked it up in the last couple of days. He tries so hard that he’s guilty of over-thinking. A challenge of our style is that there’s a lot more thinking. These freshmen sometimes are thinking rather than just playing and reacting. We have to try to do a good job of keeping some things as simple as we can, but we also have to move at a pace for the older guys to be successful. I’ve seen good improvement with Bernard [Sullivan] in a lot of places over the last two days.
"Rod Hall does a good job in our jammer role and pressuring the ball. That’s going to help him get a lot of minutes. He’s a great passer and has good poise when he’s feeding the post.
"Devin Coleman is further behind defensively, and offensively, we want him to work to be a scorer and a shooter. It’s hard for a freshman to come in with that mentality. He’s made some improvements, especially defensively. All those guys have a long way to go."
The biggest question mark has to be how Booker and Jennings will perform now that they are needed to be top dogs? Both guys have shown flashes of potential, but they haven't shown the consistency needed to carry a top tier ACC team. I worry about the basketball IQ of both players and whether they get "it". This team will likely only go as far as these two guys will take us. The competition in the early going isn't going to be stellar, so try not to focus so much on the stats, and rather focus on their play and how they are getting their points. Quality offensive moves are more sustainable than overpowering weaker competition. Jennings will need to drastically cut back on his brainfarts this season for us to be good.
If Booker and Jennings are the biggest question marks, how quickly the freshmen adapt the college game is a close number 2. Clemson only had 4 contributing guards last year (if you consider Tanner Smith a 3) and only one of them returns. We could be in big trouble here if AY doesn't have a stellar season. Andre is a 2 in the body of a PG. T.J. Sapp, Rod Hall, and Devin Coleman are going to be counted on to contribute immediately. They don't need to come in and light the world on fire. I expect use the early part of the season to shake the nerves and get comfortable in the offense. By the time conference play rolls around it is reasonable to expect enough offensive production from them to keep defenses honest. Sapp comes in with the most college ready offensive game, and as a result, I expect to see him receiving the most minutes with the first team.
Last, but certainly not least, can Clemson's defense repeat last year's effort and production? Coach Brownell brought a completely different defensive philosophy to Clemson last year and the results were extremely positive. Clemson's defense was able to keep them in most games. Grant was Clemson's best post defender last year and Stitt was Clemson's most disruptive perimeter defender. Replacing these guys won't be easy. But I also saw a well coached, discipline bunch last year and I believe that Brownell will be able to get similar production out of this year's team. He demands defensive effort out of his players. Guys know the way to get significant minutes is through defensive effort. Defense is a mentality, as continuously guarding for 35 seconds can be difficult. Brownell seems to have instilled a defensive mentality into his guys.
Outlook and Predictions
Just like last year, Clemson is picked to finish 7th by the ACC media. It's not unreasonable to expect Clemson to finish in the top half of the ACC and compete for an NCAA tournament berth. Clemson has a favorable conference schedule and returns enough talent to make it happen. Much like any other season, if Clemson is able to win the games they are expected to win and pull and upset or two, a tournament berth will be there for the taking.
I think UNC, Duke, and FSU will finish in the top 3. I expect Clemson to compete with UVA and Miami for the 4-6 spots in the conference. I disagree with the ACC media voting Virginia Tech ahead of Clemson and expect the Tigers to finish ahead of the Hokies this year. I think you'll see a similar trajectory as last year. Booker and Jennings will need time to adjust to their new roles and the freshmen will need time to fit into the offense and overcome nerves. Once that happens, I think you'll see a similar team to last year's squad. They'll use a very good defense to keep themselves in games and will have just enough offensive firepower to reach the 9 win mark in conference. Will it be enough to get them in the big dance? I believe they'll be waiting anxiously on Selection Sunday.
Brad Brownell had a very impressive first season as Clemson's basketball coach last season. He was able to take what appeared to be a less than talented team and mold them into a successful squad through insistence on basic fundamental basketball. Clemson was able to finish above 0.500 in league play and win a tourney game, which is no small feat in Tigertown. I have more confidence in him than I usually have in a first year coach because of his early success in Pickens County combined with previous stops at UNCW and Wright State.
From last season we've lost Stitt and Grant (along with a couple of guys who chose to leave well before the season got into full swing). This leaves a familiar nucleus of Booker, Jennings, Smith, and Young along with a handful of others we saw last year. Clemson is, in fact, a polar team featuring four seniors, two juniors, and no sophomores. This clearly means that we will need a newcomer to step up and give Coach Brownell some quality minutes and contribute if this team is to repeat its success from a year ago. I believe that Clemson will hang around the 7-8 conference win total with the total win mark in the 18 to 20 range. Whether this equates into an NCAA birth, I am not sure. Clearly after last season's selection, we are reminded that we need 20 wins total, 8+ wins in conference with a good showing in the conference tourney. Last season we finished 4th in conference and barely made the big dance...there are just too many question marks at this point including freshmen.
We dont sip the Koolaid much here, but we'll sip the Brownell Koolaid. You could see the focus on fundamentals very early on with this team last year, and when you have good fundamentals and talent on the roster, you will win ballgames. Give me a coach that can coach and let him hire his recruiters. Now we come to the real question of whether Brownell can last, and that will be due to his recruiting. Its going to take some good seasons for him in recruiting, and keeping the current staff (Ray in particular) in place, to build that clout in recruiting. Unfortunately the ACC will not be getting any easier.
I think Jennings is going to raise his game, but I don't think it will be enough for some people. I think he'll never live up to his stellar ratings coming out of HS. I think Devin has the talent his brother had, but truly needs to grow up in basketball IQ. In the long term, i do think we'll be OK inside. It is the perimeter that scares me. If Sapp can come in and get his defense to a good level, we should be fine. Smith's ballhandling scares me, and he'll be asked to handle it a good deal more I fear.
Looking through our schedule, I think we get to the ACC slate with 2-3 losses, and our ACC slate is favorable. I just don't know if we have enough to get further than 10-6. When I look at the other squads, I definitely see weaker teams compared to what I'm accustomed to seeing throughout ACC history, but I also see our losses. I think 20-22 Ws and a 9-7 Conference slate + NCAA berth is a fair hope for the season.
The better the defense looks by January 1, the better we'll feel. We're not going to run up huge scores this year, and 52-50 games might be common.
You'll be seeing several writers discuss our early season games as we add more basketball writers to STS, so comment and let us know what you think.