As another magical football season nears its conclusion, the basketball team is set to return to Clemson after playing last season in Greenville, SC while Littlejohn Coliseum underwent a major renovation.
Jaron Blossomgame flirted with leaving early for the NBA, but instead, the Tigers' star forward is back and finally accompanied with the talent around him for a serious run at the NCAA tournament. KenPom starts the Tigers at #23 (based on last season’s production from returning players), but the ACC media are not nearly as high on the Tigers.
Let’s take a look at the media predictions:
While the Tigers certainly belong behind Duke, UNC, Virginia, and Louisville, coming in as low as No. 11 was a bit of a surprise considering who returns for the Tigers. Part of it is likely name value. Some of the teams in front of them have actually won conference titles recently (FSU, Miami, ND) so I can’t totally blame them. That said, with the media’s understandable focus on the traditional basketball powers, they missed some key reasons why Clemson should absolutely finish above 11th in the ACC.
Syracuse lost both starting guards. NC State finished a paltry 5-13 last season and lost their star PG, Anthony Barber. Florida State, Miami, and Notre Dame will all be trying to replace multiple key contributors. Meanwhile, Clemson loses starting center Landry Nnoko and starting point guard Jordan Roper, but brings back everyone else and supplements with some key transfers.
Elijah Thomas was a big time recruit for Texas A&M, but quickly got lost in the mix with some outstanding recruits the Aggies pulled in. He realized he would have trouble getting playing time and requested a transfer before the spring semester began - a strange situation to be sure. He’ll be eligible for ACC play and should be able to replace Nnoko’s shot blocking presence, though he may be a foul machine like Clemson’s other centers.
Shelton Mitchell is another impact transfer. He was a target of Clemson coach Brad Brownell’s while in high school, but ended up committing to Wake Forest and then flipping to Vandy after Wake’s most recent coaching change. Based on an in-person conversation I had with Brownell, it sounded like he would start at point guard, and the exhibition against Lander seemed to prove this true. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffered a non-contact knee injury and will miss the opener against UGA. Without much more information than that, we may have to assume we’ll be without Mitchell for the rest of non-conference play as well.
Fortunately, the Tigers added a third impact transfer, SG Marcquise Reed, who sat out last season after transferring from Robert Morris. He was a excellent scorer for Robert Morris averaging over 15 points per game and shooting better than 40 percent from three. We originally thought he’d be a a spark plug scorer off the bench, but due to a the Mitchell injury, he’ll now play an bigger role.
The Mitchell injury is a bit harder to sustain because we also recently learned that backup PG Ty Hudson suspended indefinitely due to academic issues. A week ago, the Tigers had great depth at point guard with PG Mitchell, Ty Hudson, and combo guard Avry Holmes. Now, Holmes will have to shift down and start at PG. Gabe DeVoe and Marcquise Reed will be heavily relied upon at SG. DeVoe will also have to spell Holmes at PG when necessary.
SF Donte Grantham is poised to take a big step after two years of getting significant minutes. His continued progression will play a big role in the Tigers improvement. Last season, 56 percent of his field goal attempts were from three. With his size and athleticism, we’d really like to see him create his own shot more and settle less. This will be especially important when the Tigers utilize him at PF in small lineups. We’ll likely see this whenever we get into foul trouble at the center position or when starting PF Blossomgame takes a rest.
In the post, the Tigers have a future NBA talent in Blossomgame and a handful of defense-minded shot blockers at center. Although Nnoko is gone, Sidy Djitte has become adequate on offense and quite good on defense when he isn’t hacking. Legend Robertin will be similar, though maybe sub-par on offense. Elijah Thomas should fit a similar mold with a bit more upside, but won’t be eligible until the Spring Semester.
So let’s put a wrap up this multi-part season preview with our predictions. It’s always precarious trying to predict how Clemson will do in their traditionally soft non-conference slate, and this year it may be even trickier. With no Mitchell, Thomas, or Hudson, the Tigers are certainly at risk of dropping a few silly games and putting themselves behind the eight-ball before conference play even begins. They absolutely need to survive non-conference play with no more than three losses (they had five last season).
If they can do that, they’ll be in good position for a run. Entering ACC play, the Tigers should benefit from a boost of added depth from the aforementioned trio of Thomas, Mitchell, and Hudson (assuming they all return around this time). The ACC slate is fairly reasonable and they have no excuse to not challenge for double-digit conference wins.
Since this group of SB Nation writers has been together writing about Clemson basketball (this is our fourth season), we have not predicted the Tigers to make the NCAA tournament. This year is different. For all the reasons outlined throughout this week of season preview articles, this team should exceed the ACC media’s 11th place projection. They’ll find themselves competing to be towards the top of that 6th-10th middle tier of America’s best basketball conference. If they can survive non-conference play, such a respectable finish in the ACC would likely mean an invitation to the NCAA tournament. We’ve preached patience and process with Brownell for years. It’s now time for the payoff. Expect it.
For more perspective from our basketball staff, check out our other season preview articles:
Advanced Statistics Primer by Ryan Kantor
Interview with Assistant Coach Lucas McKay by ClemsonFlinn
X-Factors by Caleb Davis
Reasons to Believe Clemson will be Improved by Jake Brodsky
Post-Player Analysis by Mark Gordon
Perimeter Player Analysis by Jay Ingles