The excitement came when the BOT approved plans for an extensive rebuild of Littlejohn Coliseum. (You can check out the renderings here.) It's a ways out, with this season and another left to play in the current venue before moving to Greenville for the 2015-16 season and then returning to the new look Coliseum for the 2016-17 season. Nevertheless, the University is ready to invest in the program, so it deserves our passion and emotional investment as well.
With Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame joining this season, ACC basketball will be the best in the nation. After Louisville replaces Maryland next season, the ACC's dominance in basketball will far eclipse the SEC's excellence in football. Adding to that already daunting challenge, ACC Commisisoner, John Swofford, moved the conference basketball schedule from 16 to 18 games prior to last season. With 15 teams now in the conference, it would have worked out nicely so that everyone could play each team once, and their two primary rivals (for us FSU and GT) twice in a 16-game ACC schedule. I hate this change, however if it means basketball will contribute more than 20% of the media revenue in the next ACC television contract (which is all it contributes now), then I suppose it's worth it. Nevertheless, it isn't good for Clemson who finished eight games below .500 in conference play last season.
With 18 games awaiting in the ever-improving ACC, Clemson will have their work cut out for them. It is imperative that they start the season playing well and pick-up some early season wins in non-conference play.
Now on to the players that we'll count on to do just that.
On the Perimeter
The Tigers only shot 31.7% from behind the arc last season. Point guard Jordan Roper led the way shooting 41.4% from range. The sophomore from Columbia, SC will see more minutes and start at one of the guard positions. He is one of the few knockdown shooters on this squad and will be absolutely crucial to any success they may have. In addition to scoring, he'll need to improve as a distributor after averaging less than one assist per game last year. Roper led the team in scoring in their four offseason games in Italy and did so by shooting nearly 50% from three. Admittedly, this is a small sample size against inferior competition, but it does underscore both his potential and important role on this team.
In the Post
One area where the Tigers were very good last season, but could regress, is their interior defense. They defended the rim extremely well, in no small part thanks to K.J. McDaniels. It wasn't only McDaniels though. Booker and Jennings were the only other players to average over a block per game. They also finished first and second in rebounding. Some new faces will have to step up in the front court.
The first of those, and maybe the biggest X-factor this season, is redshirt freshman and starting power forward, Jaron Blossomgame. He suffered essentially the same injury as Kevin Ware of Louisville as a high school senior and missed all of last season. He required a second surgery to finish off the healing process and was unable to play in Italy, but now appears completely healthy.
We have yet to see him play in a meaningful game, so it's hard to know what to expect, but his return is great news and he is someone I'm very happy for and excited to see on the court. In speaking with him, he said "[I'm] a wing player who can play the four position because of my height (6'7")." Essentially a face-up four. Based on that, don't expect a Booker-style post presence from the youngster, but if he is someone who can create his own shot and knock down jumpers, that would be welcome. He'll also be needed on the glass where I expect he'll be a major contributor. Blossomgame is from Alpharetta, GA just outside of Atlanta and seems like a great kid (with a great Twitter account) who has been working extremely hard to recover from his injury and get the program on track. He's one I'd really like to see excel.
Landry Nnoko is your starter at center. He played sparsely in his freshman campaign, but the Cameroon, Africa product will be critical this season. In his four games in Italy, he averaged 7.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. That certainly won't translate to NCAA competition, but I do expect him to pick up a lot of the rebounds we lose with Jennings and Booker departing. He should be a solid rebounder and decent shot blocker, but he is raw offensively and may not be ready to provide much on that end of the court.
Josh Smith, though technically listed as a forward, will likely see time behind Nnoko. He also found playing time scarce last season, averaging 5.6 minutes per game. He stands at 6'8" and posted 13 rebounds per game in their Italian trip. Like Nnoko, I don't expect a ton of offense from Smith, but he'll have to be a major contributor on the glass.
Ibraham Djambo and Sidy Djitte (pronounced SIH-dee zhih-TAY) are two interesting additions joining the Tigers from this year's recruiting class. Both are 6'10" bringing some size that the Tigers sorely need. Djambo hails from Mali while Djitte joins us from Senegal. It's easy to confuse two foreign players with similar hard to pronounce names. One big difference is that Ibraham Djambo joins us after two years at Three Rivers Community College in Missouri. Years of watching guys like Karolis Petrukonis and "Bobo" keep me from getting overly optimistic, knowing these guys often take time to develop, however Djambo's years in JUCO may serve him well, and he reportedly has a good long distance shot.
In a previous STS article, gggmen08 notes that Ibrahim shot over 75% from the free throw line and 36% from three. However, he also notes that when recruited he only weighed 205 pounds. He'll need to add muscle (and hopefully already has started) to avoid getting pushed around by ACC bigs. He won't be in the starting lineup, but he should get plenty of time behind Blossomgame at power forward in what is a relatively thin front court. His emergence would allow Clemson to matchup with two bigs on the court when needed.
Sidy Djitte is a true freshman and has only been playing for about three years. He has about 20 lbs on Djambo, however his lack of experience makes it hard to believe he'll see meaningful minutes as a freshman pending injury or serious struggles from Josh Smith.
One huge difference from last season will be the offensive focus. Last season the offense slowly worked the ball to their senior post players. With this year's team, the offensive fire power will come from younger shooters and slashers like Roper and McDaniels so we'll likely see a much different offensive gameplan.
There were both commitment and chemistry problems last year. I don't say this out of the blue, Brownell essentially said it himself at the conclusion of last season:
"There’s a lot a physical things that need to change. There’s a lot of players on our team that need to get better. They have to become as committed to the game as necessary to be successful." - Coach Brownell
By all accounts, the offseason trip to Italy was a great experience for the players who got a chance to improve their chemistry while playing Italian professional teams. Many got the sense that the team was not a cohesive unit last season. Coach Brownell seems to think this is changing:
"I like the togetherness of this team. This team is much closer in age (than last year). With the experience going to Italy, I just feel like these guys really bond well with one another and will listen to each other once they kind of establish hierarchy within the team." - Coach Brownell (IPTAY Media)
K.J. McDaniels also gives us reason to think the program is now beyond those problems when he says:
"Since we're a younger team we're a lot closer than we were the last two years." - K.J. McDaniels
So while I recognize that losing Milton Jennings and Devin Booker may be a blow to our post presence on both sides of the ball, and I don't mean to explicitly call out last year's seniors (Brownell did that pretty well himself), I expect this group to have more camaraderie and grow together as a team.
I asked Jaron Blossomgame, to give us a reason to be optimistic or excited for the upcoming season. He said:
"We have some really athletic guys that can make plays at the rim or from beyond the three point line. Last year K.J. was the only one making spectacular plays but this year we have a few more guys able to do the same. From a fan standpoint I would love to watch this team. We are young, athletic, and focused on winning and having a great season." - Jaron Blossomgame
"I just want the fans to understand that we have been working extremely hard to get better and change things around in this program. All of our guys are focused and ready to have a great season and we would love your support. We need you guys to make Littlejohn one of the hardest places for road teams to play again." - Jaron Blossomgame
An NIT berth, which would require at least a 17-14 record, should be viewed as a major success and step forward for this very young Tiger team. That may be asking too much though. Growth, steady improvement, and closer to 15 wins is what I'm expecting this season as big success may still be a year away.
I'll be more or less placated if this team is playing .500 basketball by season's end (last season we finished five games below .500). That would show that last season marked the program bottoming out and things are now headed in the right direction. The recently announced facility upgrade and Donte Grantham commitment are already signs that such may be the case. Dr. B, though, has higher expectations which are below:
We have been very forgiving of Brad Brownell here at STS because we see a lot of fundamental basketball coaching on the court, and we realize that Brad had been dealt a bad hand with Purnell's last recruits. He has not recruited particularly well either, and its hard for us to recruit at Clemson. If he was a school like Purdue or Indiana, he'd probably have his team in the NCAA every year, but the results haven't come on the recruiting trail here.
However, this is the year when things have to change. We've given him a long leash so far, but not this year.
I think that making a postseason tournament is a must for Brownell this year. This team regressed last year because of very poor senior leadership and too much youth. We've been bad for too long and he's had four years. It's time to fix it and if he doesn't, I expect us to call for him to be fired. Our patience has run out.
I believe the team is capable of an NIT berth even with the schedule, so long as they get off to a good start. If we don't roll through December I don't see how it improves from there.
We will be without some of our previous writers from last season, and our basketball editor gggmen08 has decided to step down. We would also like to invite others to help STS with basketball coverage. We seem to be lacking an X's and O's component here, as well as recaps/previews for games. If you would like to contribute, contact me via email (ShakintheSouthland@gmail.com).