I've written numerous articles urging patience with Clemson's basketball program. I've oftentimes cited this upcoming season as the proper year to expect big things (as opposed to last season or the season prior). While I knew that realistically hinged on the (previously tenuous, and now imminent) return of Jaron Blossomgame, I nevertheless defended Coach Brad Brownell -- in part due to his large buy-out -- saying he deserves the 2016-17 season to make the tournament (and I've argued they will). Relenting somewhat, I've also said if his 2016-17 team fails to make the tournament, I will admit fault and give way to the critics. That is, admit it is time for a new direction.
More recently I had the pleasure of meeting Coach Brownell and really enjoyed speaking with him. He was extremely personable, open, and appreciative of the work we do at STS to cover his team. As a result, I left wanting to see him succeed even more. All this knowing that Blossomgame may leave, the team may struggle, and to maintain my own intellectual honestly and credibility, I'd have to admit the Brownell critics were right.
With the huge news that Jaron Blossomgame will return to Clemson, I'm more confident than ever that the Tigers are primed for a run at the NCAA tournament.
Shelton Mitchell, a former Clemson recruiting target who chose Vanderbilt, has transferred in and spent last year waiting for eligibility. He will get minutes at point guard, possibly even earning a starting position. Avry Holmes, who primarily played at the #2 guard a season ago, returns as a senior and is now joined by Marcquise Reed -- a transfer from Robert Morris. Coach Brownell told me "he [Reed] can score."
Grantham returns at small forward and has an opportunity to take a big step forward. He is certainly a high upside player with room for growth. Blossomgame now will be back at PF which is a tremendous boon to not just our star power, but also our depth. This allows transfer Elijah Thomas to share time at center with Sidy Djitte and Legend Robertin who should be improved after gaining experience last season.
Reed, Holmes, Grantham, and Blossomgame all provide shooting, something Brownell teams have been missing for a long time (we started to see what the offense would look like with decent perimeter shooting last season). The Tigers will have a clear leader and go-to player in Senior Blossomgame. Mitchell has an opportunity to be the orchestrator while Reed can play the role of the scoring spark plug.
I now say more than ever that this team MUST make the NCAA tournament and that they WILL make the NCAA tournament.
My only question for our readers is if it is safe for me to schedule my bachelor party for the weekend of the Sweet 16/Elite 8 or if I may need to reserve that time to watch Clemson basketball?
But back to reality, here's the assessment on what this means for Clemson from our basketball author Jay Ingles:
The importance of Blossomgame's return for this season's team and the program under Brad Brownell can't be overstated. This team without Blossomgame would have been another middling team 17-18 win team like Clemson fans have become accustomed to recently, while the team with him is a bona fide NCAA tournament contender and upper half team in the ACC -- with the potential to be even better.
While the Tigers have a nice nucleus of young talent with transfers Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, and Elijah Thomas, along with some experienced upperclassmen, the leadership and star power a player like Blossomgame brings to the table turns this year's squad from a nice little team into a dangerous one. I think his return will be especially impactful early in the season. Had he left, Clemson would have essentially had to play without a power forward until mid-December when Thomas becomes eligible, and could have been very susceptible to the bad non-conference losses that have held them back from postseason play in recent years. Having Blossomgame should make the Tigers much more immune to puzzling non-conference performances.
Now, Thomas's injection into the rotation becomes a boost rather than something the team is desperately waiting for, and it should only serve to make them stronger and deeper as conference play begins. Blossomgame's presence will also alleviate pressure from his supporting cast as teams will be game-planning to stop him instead of guys like Grantham, Reed, etc., who would have likely had to shoulder more responsibility on offense with his departure. His return affords these players the opportunity to grow around him. As a result, they will be more likely to succeed as focal points when he does actually leave after this season instead of being prematurely thrown into that type of role. In the meantime, they can benefit from their opponents' focus on Blossomgame.
Jaron obviously helps defensively and on the glass as well with his athleticism, so his decision is a win for Clemson in all facets. With Clemson entering a new arena for 2016-2017 and bringing back its most legitimate star player in a long time, it could be a great year for the Tigers that could finally turn the trajectory of the program in the direction we have been hoping for.