Have you ever listened to a song that has a funky interlude? Sometimes it feels a little strange. It may not always fit seamlessly, but it can be great. For the Clemson Tiger basketball season, this year feels a lot like that interlude.
After winning 23 games in 2013-14, the Tigers regressed a bit without K.J. McDaniels last season - to no one's surprise. Now playing in Greenville with a roster that is poised to peak in 2016-17, what can they do this season?
Projected Starting Line-up
PG - Avry Holmes (6'2")
SG - Jordan Roper (6'0")
SF - Donte Grantham (6'8")
PF - Jaron Blossomgame (6'7")
C - Landry Nnoko (6'10")
Ty Hudson (PG)
Gabe DeVoe (SG)
Josh Smith (PF/C)
Sidy Djitte (C)
Big questions loom like: Will Avry Holmes be the offensive spark that this team so badly needs? Can Landry Nnoko find consistency and avoid foul trouble? Will Donte Grantham show progression between his freshman and sophomore seasons like Jaron Blossomgame did? These are likely the big questions that will determine how far this team goes.
Point Guard: The biggest change for Clemson will be at point guard. To say veteran PG Rod Hall was heavily relied upon, would be an understatement. He led the team in minutes per game (34.2) and minute% (84.6%, 152nd nationally). Although he didn't bring game changing speed or dead-eye sharpshooting, he made the offense flow (as much as it could), particularly in crunch time.
Rod Hall is now playing football for Northern Iowa, and transfer Avry Holmes, who sat out last season (per transfer rules), now appears likely to get the bulk of the minutes at point guard.
"Avry Holmes will have as good an opportunity as anyone. Avry was brought in here with the idea that's what would happen, is he'll transition to point guard. I do think Avry's a little bit faster than Rod, and that will help us play a little faster at times." - Brad Brownell (Credit: Aaron Brenner)
It's possible the offense could look much different next year (despite what Brownell says). With the NCAA's move to trim the shot clock down to 30 seconds this year, creating fast break shot opportunities as well as knocking down open jumpers early in the possession will be crucial.
"I don't think everything's going to be drastically different, but we will continue to push, look to shoot early, if we can find a good shot, shoot it. I think we take a lot more quicker shots than people realize. Unfortunately, we don't make enough." - Coach Brownell (Credit: Aaron Brenner)
Holmes should help Clemson improve in this area. In 2013-14, when Holmes last played for the San Francisco Dons, he shot an outstanding .433 from three-point range (55/127). That led his team and would be the best on any Clemson Tiger team going all the way back to the 2002-03 season when Shawan Robinson shot .475 on 59 attempts (minimum six attempts). It was no fluke, as you can look back to his freshman year at San Francisco where he shot .471 on 87 attempts. I expect him to be Clemson's biggest threat from distance (barring dramatic improvement from Grantham), greatly aiding floor spacing.
There are two concerns though. Firstly, will he run the offense in a way that creates high-quality inside looks for Blossomgame and Nnoko. Oftentimes the offense runs best when the ball is dumped into the post, even if it is quickly kicked back out, to force the defense to collapse inside. Better perimeter shooting makes this work even better.
The bigger concern is defense. Rod Hall's defense often gets forgotten. He didn't block a lot of shots or create steals that turned into fast break points, but he was more than solid. His performance against Syracuse, holding sharpshooting Trevor Cooney to four points in a Tiger win, was one of his most notable.
Avry Holmes may bring more speed and skill to the position, but he'll need to come at least close to matching the toughness and guile that Hall brought for the Tigers to improve without their veteran leader.
Winning in the Paint: After playing sparsely in the shadow of Devin Booker and Milton Jennings as a freshman, Landry Nnoko emerged as an excellent secondary option on offense and a plus defender in his sophomore campaign. That season, he only took 13.4% of the team's shots while on the floor, but made up for it by being exceptionally efficient. His 109.0 Ortg was second on the team to KJ McDaniels and on the defensive end he blocked 7.6% of opponents 2-point shots while committing a not-that-horrendous 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes.
After such a good sophomore year, many - including myself - felt he was ready for a more prominent role on the team. Last season, Nnoko took 18.2% of the team's shot while he was on the floor, a big jump the season prior, but he was a bit less efficient and on the floor less often. After playing 69.7% of available minutes (28.1 MPG) as a sophomore, Nnoko's %min dropped to 59.7% (24.3 MPG) a season ago. This is because his fouls committed per 40 minutes sky rocketed to 5.5!
Unable to rely on Nnoko for significant minutes, Josh Smith and Sidy Djitte played key minutes off the bench. Djitte has foul problems of his own (8.2 fouls/40) and both are limited offensively. Still, they were improved and the depth at center improves as all three have had another year of experience and are now joined by JUCO transfer Legend Robertin.
Without a bevy of guards that have proven they can knock down jumpers or create their own shots, the Tigers may need to rely on a heavy dose of inside-out basketball to run an efficient, effective offense. For that to happen, they need Djitte and Smith to continue to grow as quality back-ups and Nnoko to become reliable as a senior. Landry Nnoko absolutely cannot be in constant foul trouble, as the offensive drop off to the back-ups is steep. He need to improve his consistency from a season ago.
After the season with JUCO transfer Ibrahim Djambo, my expectations are a bit lower for Legend Robertin, and we're now hearing that he may not be academically eligible in time to begin the season. He missed the exhibition game seemingly for this season. Sidy Djitte also missed the exhibition after a relatively minor knee scope. He is expected to be back for the opener, but if not, depth begins to get sparse and Nnoko's ability to stay on the court becomes even more imperative.
A More Efficient Donte Grantham:
Rising sophomore Donte Grantham was counted on sooner than expected, taking 22.3% of the team's shots while he was on the court. Unfortunately, he was rather inefficient, settling for a lot of mediocre jump shots. He missed 105 three-pointers shooting just .276 from range. Despite that, he showed flashed of athleticism inside the arc creating some quality looks and shot .496 from two-point range. It would be a tremendous boon for this team if Grantham can become the explosive, create your own shot type player that the Tigers have missed since KJ McDaniels headed to the NBA.
The 6'8" SF was a Rivals four-star recruit and has all the potential in the world. It seemed like he was relied on a bit too much so early in his career. Hopefully that helps his development as he'll be relied upon at least as heavily this season.
For a couple of reasons (buy-out clause, roster maturation, arena reconstruction), it has been my position that Brad Brownell deserves (and will get at least) two more shots to make the NCAA tournament. This season feels a little bit like a waiting period before the excitement of next year when Holmes and Blossomgame will be seniors, Grantham will be a junior, the new arena will open on campus. That team should make the NCAA tournament, but as we've seen from the football program, sometimes things come together a year sooner than expected.
The broad goal remains the same: make the NCAA tournament at least once in the next two seasons. Making the dance a year earlier than expected would be a success.
Clemson went 16-15 (8-10) last year. Ridiculous early-season losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb (rightfully) kept them out of NCAA tournament discussion even when they held a strong 6-4 ACC record. This year, the Tigers must eliminate those early letdowns. They cannot drop a game to NC Central or Wofford. The difficulty of the non-conference schedule just isn't there to compensate for it. Eliminating those losses and simply winning the games they should would decrease non-conference losses from four to just two or three. If they can couple that with just a one win increase to reach .500 in an improved ACC the Clemson Tigers should find themselves in the thick of NCAA tournament discussion. This is especially true given the hot streak they are liable to end the season on - they close the season with the softest portion of their ACC schedule (GT, BC, NCSU, GT, UVA, BC) and the recency bias the committee may (hopefully) fall victim to.
Last season, teams inside the KenPom top 50 generally received invitations to the NCAA tournament - with a few snubs here and there. NIT teams like Alabama and Minnesota were just a shade below that mark in the upper 50s, and Clemson was down in the 80s. This season, Clemson begins at #56. That's just a few spots south of South Carolina and Georgia (who are primed for runs at the NCAA tournament) and a few spots north of Wake Forest and Minnesota (who are unlikely to break into the tournament). That screams "bubble team."
Amazingly, the ACC has 10 teams inside the KenPom top 50, the most of any conference. The media as well as KenPom project Clemson to finish in the 11th-13th range - generally above Boston College and Virginia Tech and sometimes above Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
Avry Holmes could reinvigorate the offense and help Clemson space the floor with strong perimeter shooting. I do not think that Donte Grantham will turn into another Milton Jennings. The highly-touted recruit wasn't quite ready for the huge role he was immediately given in the offense, but the 27 points he put up in the exhibition are an encouraging sign for this year. Jaron Blossomgame is solid as a rock and I love him as our leader and a key contributor in nearly all aspects of the game. Counting on a lot out of Landry Nnoko makes me nervous, but with Sidy Djitte, Josh Smith, and Legend Robertin all able to log minutes at center if needed, surely (read: there's a chance) some combination can competently man the position for the duration of a game.
Losing both Demarcus Harrison and Austin Ajukwa means more of Jordan Roper and Gabe DeVoe at the two-spot. I like their offensive upside, but I worry about perimeter defense, particularly with Rod Hall also leaving the roster. I'm not confident we can match last year's top three ACC defensive efficiency mark, but we should improve on the ugly 14th ranking for ACC offensive efficiency.
Last season, eight ACC teams finished with a .500 or better conference record. If the ACC is to be an eight (or even nine) bid conference this year as some say, then reaching .500 may be enough to make the NCAA tournament. If all the X-factors discussed above break in Clemson's favor, they should be able to accomplish that or better.
Reaching the goals outlined above is realistic but hopeful. It is a more likely they fall just a little short and end just a few wins shy of serious NCAA tournament discussion, potentially receiving an invitation to the NIT. Look for growth, particularly on offense, but the NCAA year we're all waiting for may not come until 2016-17.