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Explaining Clemson Basketball's Regression

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Clemson basketball is off to a disappointing start. We explore how we got here and what is plaguing the Tigers this season.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a 23-13 (10-8) season, big spending AD Dan Radakovich awarded Coach Brad Brownell a big, fat six year contract. His buyouts are now as follows:

'14-'15 '15-'16 '16-'17 '17-'18 '18-'19 '19-'20
$5MM $5MM $3.5MM $3MM $3MM Remaining Salary

That's not to say we're advocating for his dismissal, but rather that his dismissal is simply not feasible due to contract negotiations that were not favorable for the athletic department. Here's how he's done so far.

'10-'11 '11-'12 '12-'13 '13-'14 '14-'15
22-12 (9-7) 16-15 (8-8) 13-18 (5-13) 23-13 (10-8) 4-3

As you can see, Brownell's best season was his first, when the team won a first four NCAA tournament game against UAB. The following season was a decline and then '12-'13 was an unmitigated disaster. Last year, they fell a bit short of making the Big Dance before advancing to the Final Four of the NIT. Overall, they were a good basketball team that we enjoyed following. This year's team is showing regression however.

The roster lost Adonis Filer, Ibrahim Djambo, and K.J. McDaniels and replaced them with Gabe DeVoe, Patrick Rooks, and Donte Grantham. While that is by no means an even swap, a slight improvement from the rest of the roster should render it somewhat even - certainly not the tremendous downgrade we've experienced.

Below are the KenPom team rankings from the past four years and this season.

'10-'11 '11-'12 '12-'13 '13-'14 '14-'15
22nd 76th 124th 50th 113th

Unfortunately, this year's team ranks most similarly to the 2012-2013 debacle. Coming off a respectable year where Clemson was a top 50 team, what is plaguing Clemson?

Last season Clemson's possessions ended in a turnover 18.3% of the time and specifically in a stolen ball 8.9% of the time. This year, those numbers have inched up to 18.5% and 10.4%. That increase isn't too dramatic, but also consider that Clemson has played seven games and only one has been against a KenPom top 100 team (LSU).

With Filer off the team, and Grantham doing a great job taking care of the ball (minuscule TO Rate of 11.9), it's a bit vexing that this has become a problem for the offense. In their three losses, Clemson has had 20 more turnovers than their opponents. In the three wins excluding FAMU (they're the worst team in D1 basketball) they have a -1 turnover margin.

Jordan Roper and Landry Nnoko have seen their TO Rates jump. Last season, Roper and Nnoko boasted reasonable TO Rates of 16.4 and 17.1, respectively. This year we've seen Roper's rate jump to 23.5 and Nnoko's to a whopping 28.9. This jump is somewhat acceptable for Roper because his AST numbers have also increased as he's been asked to facilitate the ball more. His APG are up from 1.3 to 2.0 while his turnovers per game are up from 1.1 to 1.4. Again, this is against weaker competition prior to ACC play this season so current season numbers should be better than last season's which include a tough ACC schedule.

Nnoko's numbers are less forgivable though. His turnovers have gone up as his involvement in the offense has increased. Last year he took 4.8 field goal attempts per game. That number is up to 8.0. Meanwhile his turnovers are up from 1.0 to 3.3. An uptick could be expected, but he is proving unable to handle the increase in workload. His numbers are up across the board, better in FG%, FT%, PPG, RPB, BPG, but his turnovers have become an anchor sinking this offense. Nnoko has averaged 11.6 points, but if each possession is worth about one point - to be precise it's 1.06 for Clemson this season - then each turnover costs Clemson about a point. KenPom measures this efficiency in his Ortg score. For Nnoko, that rating has dropped from a great 109 to a mediocre 96.5. While his increased usage has pumped up his numbers, he's become a far less efficient player. Clemson's offense needs him to approach last year's efficiency with increased usage to make up for the loss of K.J. McDaniels.

The other problem, and it's not so much a problem as it is a notable change, is the tempo at which Clemson has been playing this season. Last season Clemson played at an adjusted (for competition) tempo of 60.6 possessions per game. The year before, this was up a little at 62.6. This year it has jumped to 64.5. With the 30 second shot clock possibly coming to college basketball in the next few years (Wake Forest was trialing it in their exhibition this season), I don't have a huge problem with this, but if it is in any way causing turnovers then I prefer the slow tempo. Clemson possessions averaged 20.1 seconds last year and now they average 18.2 seconds.

Finally and most dramatically the defense has gone from outstanding to average. Last season opponents earned 0.95 points per possession, but this year that number has increased to 0.969. Again, remember we're talking about a team that has yet to play Syracuse, UNC, and the other big dogs in the ACC and comparing their numbers to a team that went head-to-head with ACC team 20 times. A big part of the regression may be the three-point defense. Last season Clemson had the nation's best 3P% Defense allowing opponents to shoot just 28.5, but that number has ballooned to a much more average 32.8 this year. Part of this is surely that last year's opponents missed more open shots, but Clemson is also allowing good looks from three as we saw against Rutgers.

Another problem has been the lack of help defense in the absence of K.J. McDaniels. This is simply something Coach Brownell needs to do a better job instructing his players on. Too many times Nnoko watches the ball handler beat his man and attack the basket without reacting, it's almost as if he is waiting for K.J. to come over from the weakside. Brownell will have to fix this.

When you're committing more turnovers and your opponents are making more threes you're going to be worse. It's that simple. Clemson doesn't force many turnovers. When they do, they should run it out looking for high percentage looks, but when that's not the case, they may be best served to continue to play slow as they did last year. The help defense must improve to get back to the level of defense last year's team relied upon.

If Nnoko can find last year's efficiency with this year's usage, and some of these other problems can be at least partially resolved, this team could still end up being that 9th or 10th team in the ACC as we predicted, but if they don't, we're looking at a 13th team in the ACC and an AD that gave out an unmerited big contract.