The Clemson basketball season ended with a resounding thud in the second round of the ACC tournament. Predictably no NIT bid was extended to a team that absolutely crumbled down the stretch. This was a serious disappointment for a team that was on the fringe of the NCAA tournament and was a NIT final four unit just a year ago. The loss of K.J. McDaniels was a predictable blow to the NCAA hopes of the team, but given he was the only departure who played significant minutes, it was a realistic expectation that the team at least make another NIT appearance this season. Now many fans are wondering if Brad Brownell is the right fit for the program, but the contract extension he was awarded just last year has made him nearly bulletproof for the next two seasons.
Finding good fits for a program is very hard to do. Sometimes a guy is a very good coach but it just doesn't work at a certain place for whatever reason. I felt like the king of the Larry Shyatt critics, but the man has proven he can coach. Wyoming was and is a great fit for him as he enters the NCAA tourney while Clemson sits at home. A guy like Oliver Purnell was a good fit at Clemson but clearly a terrible fit at DePaul as his time there came to an end this past week. Now, I'll be the first to say Purnell was probably looking at a downturn had he stayed in Tigertown because of the relative failure of his final recruiting class which at first appeared to be one that could elevate the Tigers another step. Regardless, putting together a four or five year run of hitting 20 wins and making NCAA tournaments at a place like Clemson is a tremendous accomplishment.
Clemson is a very difficult basketball job for a myriad of reasons. The facility issue was a major problem during the end of the Rick Barnes tenure and through the Shyatt era. The one upside to that period was Coach Shyatt was relatively cheap to maintain while Littlejohn was literally condemned. Clemson was in no position to really attract a good hire had they tried to make one then. Make no mistake, Brownell's extension was sweetened a lot more due to the understanding that Clemson would have to play a season off campus in the next two years. Now it is up to Brownell and his staff to put together a competitive product, especially when the team returns to the new arena in 2016-17.
What did this team accomplish?
The media felt the loss of McDaniels would be even greater than it was and picked the Tigers 11th. Clemson would finish in the 9th slot if you don't count Syracuse, so it was slightly better on that front. Clemson notched victories over NCAA bound Arkansas, LSU, and NC State and came within a whisker of beating Notre Dame. The team did a good job of beating the bottom feeders of the league dropping only the one game at Georgia Tech. At one point, the team managed to get into the NCAA tournament discussion after winning four straight ACC games. At another point, the NIT seemed like a lock, and the team was playing good basketball, boosted by a terrific stretch of shooting from Jordan Roper.
Jaron Blossomgame had a very good second campaign on the floor. Unlike Nnoko, Blossomgame was a real double-double threat every night despite being just 6'7" to 6'8". His strength, especially in the lower body, was significantly improved as he was able to work on his lower body rather than rehab. He would really shine if a guard could emerge as a consistent offensive threat.
Donte Grantham had a good year for a freshman in this type of program. He wasn't Greg Buckner, but he put up much better overall numbers than any Brownell signee to date in year one. He's got a lot to work on but certainly showed why he was a fairly highly recruited player. It would help if Clemson could produce some competition for his minutes to push him to elevate his play sooner rather than later.
Where did this team go wrong?
The Notre Dame loss, in hindsight, was a real killer. Instead of notching a signature victory and rebounding from a disappointing loss at Miami, the team let that one get away with poor decisions by veteran players and limped home. The season began with unforgivable losses to Big South opponents that couldn't even win their league. The team's defense was not up to standard in the early going.
Two things we felt Clemson could hang its hat on were Landry Nnoko inside and Rod Hall at the point guard. Both came in having shown good improvement in the previous season and had tremendous game experience, especially Hall. It was extra frustrating to watch opposing point guards tear Clemson up in the early going and at times down the stretch. Hall was a warrior and certainly gave his all, especially in the last game, but Clemson had to have him winning that matchup more often than he did being a fourth year senior.
As for Nnoko, it was close to a disaster season considering he stayed healthy. He couldn't stay out of foul trouble (5.5 fouls per 40 mins) and was incredibly inconsistent as an offensive player after showing tremendous growth as a sophomore. His primary backup, Sidy Djitte, is just too raw on offense to really be a viable option, at least this year, so the team had to have Landry be a consistent double-double threat every night. That just never materialized and was a major contributor to the letdown season.
The Tiger bench was a big problem for most of the season as well. Despite returning Austin Ajukwa, Jordan Roper, Djitte, and Josh Smith all who played good minutes the previous season, none were able to give Clemson consistent production, especially on offense. Ajukwa was MIA for the first 3/4 of the season before finally coming on late, Roper was wildly inconsistent as he started terribly, had a great four to five game run, then disappeared down the stretch. Smith and Djitte were a little better, but neither can be counted on as an offensive weapon. For a program that cannot bring in top 50 talent who can make major impacts right away, it is imperative for veteran guys to grow and produce more and more as they get older. That hasn't been the case enough with this group and needs to be a major offseason focus.
Tiger basketball fans will eagerly await the arrival of transfer Avry Holmes onto the scene next year. He certainly showed much better offensive capability than Rod Hall or the departed Adonis Filer before coming over and sitting out last season. Clemson simply has to have him be a 13-15 point per game guy as well as a playmaker next season to have any ideas about cracking the top 8 of the ACC. If Gabe DeVoe can take a significant leap to the guy that dropped 18 points what felt like five minutes against NC State, that would ease the pressure on Holmes some, however, I would use previous examples such as Johnny Miller as a cautionary tale of not expecting too much from a transfer right off the bat.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Patrick Rooks. He was a complete non-factor this season and Clemson simply cannot afford to have a guy on scholarship who is a complete non-factor. He is doing walk on duty at this point. Perhaps he was still not right after injury ended his freshman campaign, but it will be time to put up or look for a lower level place to transfer to in the 2015-16 season.
Brownell clearly showed a desire to move to DeVoe from Harrison late in the season. This was a move with the future in mind and one I applaud. No need to burn heavy minutes for an unlikely NIT bid with a senior who will be gone and wasn't giving the team much more than what DeVoe or Ajukwa could give.
I've been a Brownell defender for the most part because I know the difficulty of the Clemson job and that he has the genuine respect of his peers as a coach. However, he's got to find a way to loosen the reigns on offense and/or recruit guys who are better offensive players. Jay Bilas made a comment on ESPN that really struck me. He stated that the college game is way too controlled by the coaches in that players in many cases are not free to just play. There is a place for discipline and many guys have to figure out what good shots are when they get to college, but at the same time you have to try to breed confidence with the players. A good place to see this at work is at Iowa State with Fred Hoiberg. He's at a place that has minimal tradition and pedigree but has turned it into a regular NCAA tourney program. He has had some major impact transfers looking for a second chance. He's a great fit for that school and how they do it. That approach might not work at Clemson, but what is certain is the current approach has to be tweaked.
A guy like T.J. Sapp blossomed as a player at Murray State which plays at a much higher pace than the Tigers do. He has averaged double figures and shot at least 38% from three the last two seasons. Clemson hasn't had a guy get close to 38% from three since Andre Young, which coincidentally was the last time the team made the NCAA tourney. The attrition in the program due to transfer has been a problem to say the least. Perhaps the Holmes transfer will open the door for similar opportunities to bring in guys in that fashion and not have to rely completely on high school recruiting.