Despite losing both starting post players (something that insiders and fans were much less worried about that the "experts"), Clemson is averaging seven blocks per game, compared to five last season. Though this very well may regress as we face more athletic teams in ACC play, the defensive numbers are very positive. If we deep dive them using KenPom's advanced statistics that adjust for competition and tempo, we see that Clemson surrendered .948 points per possession last season (53rd). This year that number has dropped to .910 which is good for 4th. Although the current numbers don't include ACC play, while last year's do, the adjustments for competition level account for some of that.
The most important factor for a defense is the effective FG% (up-weights three-pt-shots) allowed. Unadjusted, Clemson has allowed a stingy 38.5%. That's the best in the nation. We're also doing a great job keeping opponents off the FT line. For every 100 FG attempting our opponents have only shot 27.2 free throws (8th). The national average is 40.9.
On the negative, Clemson isn't forcing enough turnovers, 17.8% of opponents possessions end in turnovers (214th). This team is as good if not better defensively that they were last season, and although they're not an NCAA tournament team, it truly is an excellent defense group.
On offense, the results aren't as favorable. Clemson is shooting 43.8% from the field. That includes 32.2% from behind the arc. This is a slight uptick from last year when the team shot 42.4% from the field and 31.7% from three, however with the increase competition these numbers will likely fall right back in line. What's encouraging though is the FT%, that number has increased from 65.4% to 77.1%. We have enough sample to consider this a marked improvement and it could be the difference in a couple wins from last year's team.
Our effective FG% of 49% is slightly below average (187th) and our FTA/FGA ratio of 34.7/100 is woefully below average (279th). Fortunately, we're not committing many turnovers (17.4% of possessions end in a turnover) and we are doing a decent job on the offensive glass (45th), though we wouldn't be shocked if the rebounding regressed in conference play.
What worries me the most about this team is what has happened behind the arc. Offensively, we're a poor three-point shooting team. Our 32.2% from three is only good for 227th and trails the national average of 34.0%. Defensively, our opponents shoot just 22.9% from three. That's number one in the nation, however I think this is the area where regression is most likely and could be very painful. Arkansas torched us from three a few weeks ago and our inability to stop them was the primary reason we lost the game. Monday night, VMI was 3/28 from three. While some of those shots were ridiculous circus shots, they also missed an inordinate amount of open threes. For the most part, this was luck, but as we see better shooters in conference play, that luck may run out. If teams like UNC shoot 22.9% from three against us, then we're just the luckiest team in the country-not that I'd complain.
We are 8-1 when we out-rebound our opponents. ACC coaches are going to pound us inside. Due to our lack of interior size and the players we'll face in the ACC this could become a problem. We do not follow our shots well enough and we don't box out. Far too often there have been multiple Clemson players and one opponent in the paint, and the opponent has stolen the ball. Against VMI, Clemson surrendered 16 offensive rebound (though many were off long rebounds). This is another point of possible regression.
Rod Hall and K.J. McDaniels lead the team in minutes and points, respectively. Rod Hall is clearly improved from last season and has averaged 30.3 minutes and 10.8 PPG. His FT% has jumped from 59.7% to 83.3% allowing him to be more aggressive. As such, his FT attempts per game have doubled, from 2.0 to 4.0. McDaniels is averaging 16.8 points and 2.9 blocks per game. He is leading the team in turnovers with 2.1 per game and has disappeared in a few games (most obviously VMI), but has been our best player overall.
Devin Coleman was our best three-point shooter averaging an amazing (and unsustainable) 42.9%. The top distance shooters remaining are McDaniels (35.6%) and Roper (35.3%). I tend to think we underutilized Coleman and am upset with the transfer, however with injured freshman, Patrick Rooks, coming back next season the long-term implications are minor.
Demarcus Harrision continues to shoot at a low 34.9% from the field and a paltry 28.6% from three, which is actually up from last season. I'd really like to see him shoot less threes, but he's shooting slightly more than last season so that may not be in the cards.
Jaron Blossomgame is my favorite player, but if I'm being unbiased I have to admit 4.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, with 37.3% FG percentage is not going to cut it for a starting PF in the ACC. I do think he can improve on these numbers as he continues to get more comfortable in his return from injury.
Finally, I look at Landy Nnoko as someone who has improved greatly from last season. He is fourth on the team in scoring with 5.4 points per game and a great 64.3% clip. His 7.0 rebounds per game lead the team and his 1.8 blocks are second only to McDaniels. I still call him mittens for hit proclivity to fumble passes, but he's really improved and is a critical piece for this team.
Clemson's schedule hasn't been overly challenging thus far, and that's fine. Given our level of competitiveness and the tough conference slate ahead, there's no reason to schedule world beaters early on. The non-conference schedule breaks down into three groups:
Cupcake Six Pack (Stetson, Delaware St, Coastal Carolina, SC State, Furman, VMI):
Six of Clemson's twelve non-conference games were in Littlejohn against cupcakes. These are teams we should devour just as the football team handles FCS teams in Death Valley, and we did just that. None of these teams rank in the top 200 of KenPom and Clemson successfully piled up the wins against them, going 6-0.
Aside from just the record, Clemson also looked relatively impressive and gave us reason for optimism. Clemson held all six opponents under 55 points and won by an average margin of 25.3 points.
Charleston Classic (Temple, Davidson, UMass):
The Charleston Classic, though lacking the name recognition of some of other early season tournaments, provided some good competition. In the first round, Clemson toppled Temple, which still stands as their best win of the season. Temple is currently 95th in the KenPom rankings (as of 12/31).
The second round was a bit easier, as Davidson is not the Stephen Curry team their name evokes. Clemson dominated the game from start to advance to the Charleston Classic Finals. There we met UMass. Umass is the best team we've played thus far. They rank in KenPom's top 25 and have beat LSU, New Mexico, and nearly FSU. Although I would have liked to win the tournament, this was a loss that doesn't hurt too badly given the quality of opponent. Their veteran post players pushed us around and it was clear they were the superior team.
SEC Trio (Scar, @Arkansas, @Auburn):
I'm a big fan of scheduling SEC opponents when possible. They make for interesting matchups and are squads that a middle of the pack ACC team-which is where we would like to be-should fare well against.
In the rivalry game, K.J. McDaniels shut down South Carolina's star player-Sindarius Thornwell-in a dominant defensive performance, and Clemson knocked off the Gamecocks in Littlejohn. For me, this was the most satisfying and enjoyable win of the season. Temple may be a better team, but it's really splitting hairs. Clemson hasn't defeated a team with a winning record all year and it's becoming a rare delicacy to beat SCar so I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Clemson played their only true road games at Arkansas and Auburn. They arrived at Bud Walton arena in Fayetteville, AR amid a heavy ice storm and looked good early, but faded away as they were torched from three-point range. Clemson didn't defend the three at all, especially coming out of the half, and a hot shooting Arkansas team took advantage. Although the loss wasn't unexpected-both the Arkansas Fight blogger we spoke with and I predicted a Razorback win-the fashion in which they lost was frustrating. Still, it looked like Clemson had a good chance to enter ACC play at 10-2 with seemingly easy games against Auburn and VMI remaining.
Clemson then had the week off for finals before traveling to Auburn. This 66-64 loss is a head scratcher. Auburn will not be in the NCAA tournament (UMass and Arkansas both may be), and they likely won't sniff the NIT either. This was one we had to have and it's extremely disheartening to see us perform so poorly on the road. Auburn is only ranked 196th in the KenPom rankings. This is the kind of loss that keeps teams out of tournaments, and it may weigh heavily on us if we're a NIT bubble team.
Upcoming (@BC, FSU, Duke, @VT):
In the next two weeks we'll find out a lot about this team. After the missed opportunity at Auburn Arena, Boston College and VT are now the teams Clemson is most likely to beat on the road. Failures there could doom Clemson to a 0-11 road record. By all measures, that's a failure, and it makes these next couple games extremely important. Both Boston College and VT are bad. I don't mean bad by ACC standards either, I mean they're just bad. They're a combined 11-14 thus far, so there's absolutely no excuse to lose these games, but after the Auburn debacle I'm hardly expecting two wins.
Clemson plays much better at home and should be competitive against FSU, though I wouldn't chalk that up as a win either. Duke, for all the fanfare, may not be very competitive. I'm not sure why that's always the toughest ticket. I'd much rather watch us beat South Carolina or Wake Forest, but that's just me (although I will admit the 74-47 victory over Duke a few years ago was one of the best sporting events I ever attended).
If Clemson can come out of this stretch with three wins, I'll be thrilled, but 2-2 is more likely. I'm looking at the games in Chestnut Hill and Blacksburg to see if this team can do anything on the road. Other winnable road games include Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. I understand winning road games in tough, especially in conference play, but against the weakest competition in the conference they can't lay a goose egg.
Final Thoughts: When previewing the season, I predicted a 9-3 non-conference record. The losses to UMass and Arkansas were expected, but Auburn was an atrocious one. They project to finish in the bottom four of the SEC. After losing to Coastal Carolina the past two seasons, you had to figure there'd be one of those garbage losses in there, but it's still irritating.
We likely need 17-18 wins to earn an NIT berth, which if you remember was the goal we set in our season preview. Our best path to that was 10 or 11 non conference wins and six or seven conference wins, plus something positive out of the ACC tournament.
Fellow STS writer, Mark Gordon, and I both projected a 6-12 ACC record. Given what we've seen, I see no reason to deviate from my original 15-15 (6-12) projection, do you?