Facing a loaded ACC schedule which was recently expanded from 16 to 18 games, the Tigers generally schedule somewhat conservative non-conference matchups, but a couple interesting contests stand out. These include Minnesota, UMass, Rutgers/Creighton, Alabama, and Georgia. Our initial breakdown was posted upon the schedule's release and can be found here. The full schedule is below.
Taking a look at a few of Clemson's most interesting non-conference contests as well as the flow and set-up of conference play, we start in Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are the 2013-14 NIT Champions. Unfortunately for them, it didn't set up to be a springboard for bigger and better things as they didn't make the NIT or NCAA tournament last season. Additionally, they now lose a ton of talent from last year's team including their two best players. One of them, Andre Hollins, hit 78 three-pointers while shooting .400 from behind the arc. Ironically, Donte Grantham and Demarcus Harrison were #1 and #2 on Clemson in made three-pointers and combined for exactly 78 triples. SB Nation's Big Ten site has a great preview of their season and projects them to finish 12th in the B1G. KenPom has them ranked 10 spots below Clemson in their pre-season rankings, but still favors the Gophers due to home court advantage. Nevertheless, this is winnable.
Three of UMass's top four scorers have departed and this squad may not be quite as strong as the couple that defeated the Tigers in years past. Two key departures come out of the post, hopefully opening an opportunity for Blossomgame and Nnoko to make a big impact in that game which will be the opener for the Tigers in the Las Vegas MGM Grand Main Event. KenPom gives the Tigers a 77% chance to beat UMass.
In the second game of the MGM Grand Main Event, the Tigers will either play Rutgers or Creighton. Rutgers only won 10 games last year and was simply an atrocious loss for Clemson. The Tigers would likely be favored in a rematch. Creighton is another team that may be in a little bit of rebuilding after a paltry 4-14 Big east record last season. The Tigers have a reasonable chance to win the MGM Grand Main Event even though UMass and Creighton have accomplished more in recent years and Rutgers beat them head to head last year.
The SEC opponents Clemson faces may actually represent the biggest challenges on the non-conference schedule. South Carolina will come to Greenville. The Cocks return a good bit of talent and rightfully have NCAA tournament aspirations. Sindarius Thornwell will return for his junior season. He made a splash as a freshman two years ago (and was totally shut down by K.J. McDaniels in one of the best defensive performances I've ever seen). Last year was a bit of a step back for him, but the talent didn't go away. Duane Notice who was actually the better guard last season also returns and leading rebounder and competent scorer Michael Carrera returns for his senior season. What will likely be the difference maker for their season is how well P.J. Dozier does as a true freshman starting PG. ESPN ranked him as the 19th best player in high school and he just so happened to be from Columbia, so he stayed at home. If he makes an instant impact, it's going to be very tough to beat the Chickens, though KenPom is more optimistic (55%).
Alabama won an NIT game last season, but they lost their top three scorers. Avery Johnson is in his first year there after coaching the Nets and appears to be an outstanding hire. Still, in Greenville, Clemson should have a fair shot to win this game (KenPom 71%).
Georgia was a legitimate tournament team a season ago, but they lose three starters. This game falls during Christmas Break so there won't be much bark in Stegman Coliseum (a road game I'd recommend), but I still wouldn't expect a win. It's not totally unfathomable that the Tigers could win, but it's the least likely non-conference win according to KenPom, 33%.
So, while a handful of the teams on the non-conference slate seem daunting, it looks like a portion are going to be a bit down and the Tigers should have a good shot in all of them, which is what you want as you're scheduling these games. If they can reach ACC play with two losses, that would be great, but three feels more likely. Certainly they can't drop games to teams like NC Central or Wofford and expect fan enthusiasm or and NCAA run. Unfortunately, their unimpressive double-overtime exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne didn't inspire much confidence in them avoiding an early season letdown.
Turning our attention to ACC play, the Tigers start in Chapel Hill, which I actually like. Let's get it out of the way. A win makes the whole season at least a partial success and a loss there gets it behind us and ready to move on. In addition to playing FSU and GT twice, we also drew Boston College and Virginia for two games each this season. Virginia is one of the better teams in the conference, but BC is towards the bottom so we can't complain too much.
The conference schedule is heavily front-loaded with UNC, FSU, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke, Miami, Virginia, and Pitt to start. The second half of the schedule includes GT twice, BC twice, Wake Forest, and VT. Achieving some successes in non-conference and building confidence will be crucial as this could be a year where they start 3-5 or worse in conference and will need to draw on those non-conference wins to have the confidence to finish 5-3 or better down the stretch. Fortunately, recency bias and late wins will be working in the Tigers fan come postseason selection time.
Be on the lookout for more season preview articles including a rundown of our expectations as to how well Clemson will fare against these opponents.