The Tigers typically play a fairly soft non-conference schedule, and this year was not meant to be an exception, however they drew two NCAA tournament-caliber teams while playing in the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando.
The Tigers offense was clicking on all cylinders as they scored 95 points in a decisive opening round win over Davidson. That sent them to the winners’ bracket where they would face Xavier, a #2 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament.
The Tigers were competitive against the Musketeers, but with so little depth due to injuries, suspensions, and transfer ineligibility they slowly faded and lost 77-83. Sidy Djitte fouled out in just 28 minutes of play. Legend Robertin only played five minutes, leaving 17 minutes of court time without a center.
In the other winners’ bracket game, Oklahoma was upset in overtime by Northern Iowa, sending Oklahoma, a final four team a season ago, to play Clemson in the third place game. The Tigers played very poorly in the first half against OU. While their defense was stifling, their offense ignored Jaron Blossomgame and settled for low percentage outside shots. Jaron Blossomgame scored just four points in the first half and the Tigers went into half trailing 23-35.
The Tigers come out of halftime looking just as sloppy. By the 12:49 mark, they trailed by 18 points, 29-47. Brad Brownell then tried a new strategy. He began mixing 1-3-1 zone in with the usual man defense. The Sooners didn’t immediately adjust and turnovers turned into easy Tiger points. It swung the momentum and the Clemson offense found a rhythm. Rather than settling, they began feeding Jaron Blossomgame the ball. He rewarded them with an 18-point second half while maintaining a Ortg of 116, showing that the output wasn’t just a matter of volume, but also efficiency.
The Tigers would trim the 18-point deficit to single digits and threaten late in the game getting the lead as small as four points, but OU’s talent showed as they knocked down clutch three-pointers to stave off the rally. Christian James finished 5-5 from three for the Sooners including some daggers that quelled Tiger runs.
Donte Grantham and Gabe DeVoe struggled, shooting a combined 3-25. Grantham has oftentimes taken better shots than in past seasons, but has struggled to find his stroke. With so little depth, he’ll need to get it going. He posted a paltry 50 Ortg in the game, the lowest of any player in the contest. DeVoe was a bit better at 64 thanks to his five assists.
Sidy Djitte avoided foul trouble and played all 40 minutes against OU, keeping Legend Robertin off the court. It was one of the best games of Djitte’s career. He finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds. He even knocked down a big three-pointer late in the game to keep the Tigers hopes alive. While the loss was discouraging, Sidy Djitte’s play was one of the biggest bright spots.
Marcquise Reed played well in 26 minutes off the bench. Ty Hudson returned for suspension to play 2 minutes and freshman Spencer Scott saw the court for one minute. It was evident how thin the Tigers bench is right now. They badly need their transfers to get healthy and eligible. Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas will do wonders for this team’s depth.
The Tigers will have to play more consistently to make a real run at the NCAA tournament, but despite the 1-2 finish in the invitational, expectations should not change much. The losses keep us realistic, Clemson isn’t going to be a 3-6 seed, but that was never the expectation. A strong win over Davidson and competitive battles with Xavier and Oklahoma are nothing to scoff at. They’ll need to focus on playing inside out basketball, utilizing Blossomgame and Djitte early and often, even if only to collapse opposing defenses.
They won’t face any teams as good as Xavier or Oklahoma again in the non-conference, but will have a chance to tack on quality wins against Nebraska, Alabama, and South Carolina. Next up is their first cupcake of the year, High Point on Friday. If the Tigers can get to non-conference play at 9-3 with wins over Georgia, Davidson, Nebraska, and Alabama or South Carolina, they’ll be in a decent place to make a run at the NCAA tournament as reinforcements - Mitchell and Thomas - join the team!