As Clemson fans collectively prepare for the big football showdown in a couple of weeks, the basketball programs met to prime our appetites for beating the arch rival in anything and everything. It was indeed sweet to see that Brad Brownell, who suffered some inexplicable losses to the chickens with his best teams early on, has begun to turn the tide in the series back to where Purnell had it. It was a game that had to be won if this season is going to merit any kind of postseason play. The Tigers, even without seniors, are a much more veteran group than Frank Martin's bunch. Martin predictably cleaned house after last year's debacle. Within coaching circles it was known that Martin held a high degree of disdain for the crew Darrin Horn left him to coach, save one or two. With the retooling going on in Columbia, anything short of victory on our home floor at this stage of the season would have been disastrous. The Tigers answered the bell and controlled the game, more or less, from wire to wire. Here are a few things to be excited about:
1. Free Throws: If you have followed Tiger hoops at all for the last 30 years or more, you know that FT shooting has been a major thorn in the side of the program. Often I wondered how mid major squads could routinely put better shooting teams on the floor than an ACC team like Clemson as I grew up. The truth of that matter is that in order to really match up defensively at all in a league like the ACC, Clemson must sign athletes on that level. Of course, the big boys clean this relatively small cupboard clean leaving Clemson having to take project players with holes in their games. Brownell has departed from Purnell's approach in many ways, and the growing pains of that were clearly felt the last two seasons. Brad has taken some projects, as all CU coaches must, but he has also gone for the Jordan Roper types who ordinarily star at the mid-major level. Roper is a very good athlete, but undersized as we all know.
When Brad talked about the right guys getting fouled last night, he was right. Rod Hall has learned that he can draw fouls and can score from the line if he can just get his FT shooting down. He has improved a great deal in that area as his overall shooting will never be outstanding. KJ McDaniels should live at the FT line due to his monster athleticism and above the rim ability. His only shooting 2 going into last night was a problem. KJ should be taking 6-8 a game on average to be as effective as he is capable of. Last night was a great example of that. Martin's defensive philosophy is a bit unorthodox in that his ultimate goal is to limit ball movement in passing. He likes to force the action off the dribble and be physical. As a result, you better be ready to attack off the bounce and take advantage of fouls. They fouled the heck out of Baylor and followed suit against us last night. We got the ball in the right guys' hands and they took advantage from the charity stripe. We can't expect 90% plus going forward but in games like last night, it helped us avoid a long scoring drought which killed last year's team more often than not.
2. Perimeter defense: Brownell has really improved Clemson's perimeter defending during his tenure. It is an aspect overshadowed by the programs downturn in the last two years. We all remember just how bad this was during the Shyatt days when teams routinely set their 3 point shooting team records when playing Clemson. Purnell's teams were also vulnerable to the outside shot, though some of this was from the pressing style that leaves guys open in certain areas if you get past the traps. So far Clemson has really bothered the shooters on the other team and did so again last night. USC is a long way from being Duke in this regard, but even so, that part of their game was eliminated as USC put up a 1-10 brickfest. Rod Hall is an A+ on the ball defender and Clemson's rotations are very strong in the half court sets. Limiting turnovers that lead to fast breaks has also really helped this team make sure folks have to beat the set defense. It is easier to take some chances on the perimeter when you can block shots like Clemson can. If Nnoko can learn to quit fouling so much, he could join KJ in being a real force protecting the rim.
3. K.J. McDaniels: Coaches who succeed at a place like Clemson have to do so in one of two ways. The first way is the shady path of AAU circuits and/or JUCO players where NCAA violations are a common occurrence (though rarely cracked down upon). We have Case A with Frank Martin down in Columbia. He built his career on successfully navigating those murky waters. Brownell, and really every coach we've had post Cliff Ellis, has had to take a different route. Clemson, as we know, isn't going to be able to recruit most JUCO kids who are 90% major academic question marks. A guy like Djambo is a major rarity for us. The Grantham signing was huge in that Brad and company found a diamond before the murky water sharks did and managed to hold them off. This is first time in a while this has occurred. Barnes and Purnell found themselves standing at the alter on some difference makers several times later in their tenures. A guy like K.J. is one Brad was able to find that the big boys didn't pay attention to.
It is like the Levon Kirkland argument when debating two star guys versus five star guys. The problem in hoops is you only have 5 guys out there at once, and 13-16 in your program total on scholarship. You can ill afford mistakes on reaches, as Brad has painfully seen in the attrition of his initial two classes. There is a reason you don't really see much out of guys that have transferred out of Clemson. This is because they just aren't that good at this level. You have to hit on one or two and then build. Barnes hit on Greg Buckner, who went from lazy underachiever to one of the top five all time in CU history, in his first class and built his three NCAA appearance teams around him. Purnell hit on both KC Rivers, who we never would have had a shot at had he not had a really badly broken leg in HS, and Trevor Booker and Demontez Stitt. This allowed his staff to develop the other big men who came in projects. Brownell took full advantage of Stitt being a very good guard and finished the development of Jerai Grant. We unfortunately did not get Grant's two brothers who were further along in HS and swooped up by higher profile programs as a result. KJ came is as a one dimensional slasher but to his credit has worked hard on his game and now is beginning to really reap the rewards. Clemson must have him playing at All-ACC level all year long this year and he has not disappointed so far. We should get two very good years out of KJ now and Brownell can recruit to that (and has). We must all hope for KJ to stay healthy and off the ACC ref radar for foul trouble as Trevor and Devin Booker fell victim to many times. Others have to be ready to take advantage of what will undoubtedly be increased efforts to limit McDaniels on offense going forward.
Now to the concerns:
1. Rebounding: Most folks felt the departure of Booker and Jennings was addition by subtraction, especially with the latter, but both were pretty high volume rebounders (especially Booker). Playing great defense isn't so great if you give up second and third opportunities off of misses. I counted one possession last night when the chickens got six cracks at the basket in one possession, which ended up with them on the FT line. Now, a hallmark of Frank Martin teams is great offensive rebounding but this is still an area of concern going forward. The coots racked up a whopping 21 offensive boards compared to our 7.
2. Missed opportunities: There was the stretch in the first half when the coots went scoreless for nearly 4 minutes. Clemson built a lead, but didn't really pull away at that point. Among the low-lights of that stretch was a Filer steal and then blown dunk opportunity when the ball slipped on him going up. Thankfully free throws allowed us to not mirror the scoreless streak of the coots, but against better competition we must take advantage of the other team going cold.
3. Landry Nnoko: We know Landry is a project, but he has to find a way to stay out of foul trouble. The above rebounding concern becomes bigger when your starting center can't stay on the floor. Clemson already starts small with Blossomgame at the 4 and KJ at the 3, so getting rebounding production from the 5 is very important going forward.
Overall it was a good win and the team shows progress at this point from last year's malaise. You can't put too much stock in this part of the season as teams figure each other out and get more film on each other. For example, BC has struggled a good bit early on with a team that nearly returned intact from last year's squad that finished strong. However, I wouldn't expect them to be a total walkover come ACC play. Likewise remember the start VT got off to last year and they ended up in the basement with us by season's end.