We laid out some pretty straight-forward goals for our basketball team before the season began. We had hoped for 10 non-conference wins and nine ACC regular season wins. That would have put Clemson on the NCAA tournament bubble with 19 total victories. Their fate likely would've rested on their ACC tournament performance. That was a fate we would have been happy to live with. Texas Tech, Syracuse, and Oregon State all made the NCAA tournament with just 19 wins, so that perspective certainly proved to be realistic.
We projected that the Tigers fall just shy of these goals though, potentially snagging an NIT bid:
"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."
Overall, our projections were close, but the Tigers slightly underwhelmed even those humble expectations. Clemson ended 17-14 with seven non-conference wins and 10 ACC wins. That's three fewer non-conference wins than we had hoped for, but one more ACC win. We were spot on with them falling short of the NCAA tournament, but they were out of the conversation by Feb. 20th, a bit earlier than expected. Additionally, they did not receive an NIT invitation, which we were optimistic about.
So how did we end up where we did?
The season was a peculiar roller coaster. Its strange proclivity for getting our hopes up only to shatter them made the year feel more disappointing than it probably should.
The Tigers started off 3-0 with blowouts over weak opposition. After struggling early in the year the season prior against similarly out-gunned opponents, this brewed some optimism. Unfortunately, as soon as they gave us expectations, they failed to meet them. They lost two of their next three with very bad losses coming at a neutral site to UMass (KenPom #172) and at Minnesota (KenPom #217). Those would truly serve to highlight how poor this team was away from Greenville.
At 4-2, the Tigers' woes would worsen as they went 0-3 against SEC opponents - none of which made the NCAA tournament (though the Gamecocks were severely snubbed - which is great). They would pick up three wins against small SC schools along the way and finish with a very poor 7-5 non-conference showing. Later, when Clemson was at their peak and rightfully in NCAA tournament discussions, analysts were quick to point out that the Tigers would have arguably the worst non-conference resume of any team to ever make the NCAA tournament.
At this point, conference play was just beginning, but the season was (or at least felt) already ruined. As a result of this as well as the gridiron Tigers' spectacular run, the basketball team received very little fan attention. That turned out to be a shame. Between the football team's Orange Bowl victory and their appearance in the National Championship game, their basketball counterparts beat Syracuse on the road (their lone quality road win) and Louisville at home (the best opponent they would beat all year). Two days after the football national championship, they would beat Duke, a game I only caught part of in the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport as I headed home from Phoenix.
With those big wins under our collective belts and needing something to break free from the National Championship malaise, attention finally turned from football to basketball. It was nearly too late though.
The Tigers would beat Miami at home, but that would be the last impressive win in their run to a 5-1 start in ACC play. They would go 5-7 through their final 12 ACC regular season games and then embarrass themselves in the ACC tournament by blowing a 18-point lead late in the second half to Georgia Tech.
While fading late in the season is a familiar feeling (2015: 2-6 down the stretch, 2014: 4-5 down the stretch, 2013: 1-9 down the stretch) it was still strange this year due to the schedule. The Tigers beat Louisville, Duke, and Miami early in the schedule, but lost to Virginia Tech, NC State, and Georgia Tech (twice) late in the year. The obvious difference was the venue. Those impressive wins came in Greenville while the head-scratching losses came away from home. In fact, The Tigers were one of the more impressive squads in recent Clemson history when playing at home in Greenville, tallying a 13-5 home record. Unfortunately, they were absolutely dreadful on the road (and at neutral sites) posting a 4-9 record with losses to UMass, Minnesota, and Georgia Tech (twice).
The Tigers earned four wins against NCAA tournament teams plus a win over Louisville, but lost to nine different (GT twice) teams that did not make the NCAA tournament.
So if we are viewing the season as a slight under-performance that feels even more disappointing due to the up-and-down journey, how did they end up there?
The home/road splits are not usual, but they are extreme. We thought Bon Secours Wellness Arena might fail to give the Tigers the home court advantage they needed. That was not the case. I am left to wonder if it's strange configuration made it in anyway difficult for them to adjust to more traditional college basketball arenas when they hit the road. Nevertheless, because of their success at home, it's hard to blame the extra travel time or the depressed student turnout from playing in Greenville for this season's under-performance.
Clemson's defense was only slightly above average, as they finished 6th in the ACC in defensive efficiency. Interestingly though, they finished #1 in the conference in blocked shot percentage, swatting 13.2% of opponent's two-point field goal attempts. Though in isolation this looks good, I believe it is at least in part the result of over-emphasis. Due to the aggressive nature that Landry Nnoko, Sidy Djitte, and Legend Robert went for blocked shots, they collected A LOT of blocks (Nnoko is top five in school history), but also committed a A LOT of fouls. Nnoko committed 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes, Djitte committed 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes, and Legend committed an amazing 10.9! That means Nnoko, on average, would foul out in 37 minutes, Djitte in 27 minutes, and Legend in 18 minutes. Not only was that a problem, but overly-aggressive help defense led to more than a handful of "extra pass" lay-ins.
Additionally, Austin Ajuwka's perplexing transfer left the Tigers small at guard. Jordan Roper created a great deal of value for the team by distributing more effectively than he had previously in his career, but the Tigers missed size at the #2 guard. I'm still unsure why Ajukwa transferred as he almost certainly would have received decent minutes.
All was not bad though. Donte Grantham took a big step forward. Yes, I know there was still some justified criticism (he still settles for mediocre outside shots too often), but he was much improved and a major contributor. He led the team with 56 three-pointers on solid 35.4% shooting. This is leaps and bounds better than a season ago when he shot just just 27.6% from three (why did he keep chucking?). He still needs to improve his ability to finish around the rim (his athleticism can get him there), but he took some encouraging steps and knocked down a handful of big shots.
Jaron Blossomgame, the ACC's most improved player, stole the headlines. His scoring skyrocketed from 13.1ppg to 18.7ppg. He got to the FT more often and improved from .708 to.782 from the charity stripe. His biggest leap was from three-point territory where he was a poor .288 shooter and became an outstanding .446 shooter. On top of those offensive gains, he had more blocked shots (41) than in his first two seasons combined (24).
So there were some positives. Jaron Blossomgame's development is the most obvious, though it will be a bit less exciting for us as fans if he parlays it into an early entrance into the NBA. We won't know for sure until May, but K.J. McDaniels' career path should be a cautionary tale. Beating Duke and some other big time opponents helped us emotionally recover from falling just a hair short of the ultimate sports crown in Glendale, AZ. Lastly, they landed some major transfers that should help the program moving forward.
Still, the season will be remembered mostly negatively. The bottom line is they failed to make the tournament once again. We have stated time and time again that Brad Brownell needs to make the NCAA tournament by the 2016-17 season. Now he'll only have one more opportunity. While they are not mired at the bottom of the league like Boston College and Wake Forest, they're also not budging from the middle of the pack.
As we look forward, so much rests on Jaron Blossomgame's NBA decision. Elijah Thomas, Marquise Reed, and Shelton Mitchell should give the Tigers enough of a boost to negate the losses of senior starters Landry Nnoko and Jordan Roper, but almost certainly not enough to overcome losing the team's star and lone 1st team All-ACC player.
Brad Brownell said it himself:
"At the end of the day we need to do the next thing and that's make the tournament."
With the return of Jaron Blossomgame, I believe they can do just that. Had K.J. McDaniels returned for his senior season I believe they would have made the tournament a season ago, changing the narrative, but that was not the case and it cannot be an excuse if Jaron Blossomgame also leaves early. Brad Brownell has done a good job keeping Clemson consistent in the ACC, but if the occasional NIT run is the best we can look forward to it is time to move on. Next season is make or break and should Jaron Blossomgame return, I believe they will make it.