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Diagnosing Clemson Basketball’s Woes

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What's wrong with Clemson Basketball? An in-depth look at the the Tigers’ potentially fatal flaws

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson basketball Tigers have now lost six in a row with Virginia Tech becoming the latest home loss on Sunday night. A season that held such promise as recently as New Year’s Eve suddenly feels like a return to the old and familiar for Clemson fans.

Since we’re at the season’s mid-point, taking a closer look at what’s behind the Tigers’ woes only makes sense. It’s easy to point the finger at Coach Brad Brownell or blame inconsistent shooting, but those over-simplify the deeper issues at play. Basketball is complex, and there are many reasons this particular squad has struggled.

Note: my analysis and statistics were conjured up before the loss to Virginia Tech, although it is still relevant.

Boys Amongst Men

For starters, the ACC is much tougher than years past, and there’s very little margin for error in league play, with most games decided by 2-3 possessions.

The Tigers are dead last in the ACC in three-point percentage (35%) and rank 266th in all of Division I in rebounds per game. Rebounding warrants its own post, and is probably one of the more obvious Achilles heels of this team to the casual observer.

There is also a team chemistry or gelling component that takes some time as three transfers are learning to mesh with the returning players.

None of these reasons individually justifies the current six game slide or the 11-8 record, though. Every team has its fair share of weaknesses including the blue bloods loaded with lottery picks. Part of becoming a good basketball team is understanding and playing to your strengths, and learning to mitigate your weaknesses.

Non-Offensive Offense:

Overall, this is a good offense, ranked 30th by KenPom and I believe there is enough firepower to be closer to a top 20 offense. Brownell and company deserve a lot of credit for their efficiency on offense through the mid-way point.

The team is leaning more on the three ball to secure points, and I believe this is a great thing. Their 3-point shooting has been below average. That said, Clemson has not been shooting themselves out of games either -- 35% would be the equivalent of shooting 52.5% from two-point range. Not bad.

I can illustrate the strengths of this offense more in depth in future posts but for now, because of the current six game skid, let’s focus on what needs to improve on the other side of the ball. Just know, this offense is good enough to reach the Sweet 16.

Dysfunctional Defense:

Combing through hours of film since the genesis of the losing streak – the UNC loss at home – I was able to quickly identify the root of the Tigers’ biggest deficiency: poor team defense. This being the team’s weak side is a surprise to few -- the degree of ineptitude in certain moments is what’s shocking. The offense will never be able to make up for the team’s defensive inadequacies if Clemson hopes to make a tournament run.

Like all Brownell teams, this team appears to put in effort on the defensive side, but playing hard defense and playing good defense are not always the same thing. From UNC to Louisville, there are countless mistakes on the defensive end that were preventable and stem from a lack of focus, discipline, or toughness.

I hate using the word “soft,” but when describing our pick & roll defense, there’s no nicer way to say it. Guards are not fighting to get over screens and good teams are able to use pick & rolls as an easy entry point to attack our defense.

This lack of toughness is illustrated by the fact that our guards are rarely in foul trouble – while on the surface this may seem like a good thing, it’s also indicative of them not forcing the issue with their opponent counterparts. There’s enough depth at the guard spot to weather some foul trouble. I say ratchet up the intensity, and see how opponents respond.

To be effective as a perimeter defender, you must bump, prod, push and pull opposing players until the whistle tells you otherwise, then adjust your level of physicality accordingly. Our guards are not reaching this threshold. Not even close.

Watch Louisville’s defense – ranked number two by KenPom and considered by many the best defense in the country – they live on the complete opposite side of the aggression spectrum, ready to throw blows if officiating permits.

Once penetration occurs with minimal resistance – via screen or off the dribble -- Clemson has been poor in providing help defense and rotating (more on this later).

Communication is one of the pillars of good defense. When facing teams like Virginia, which use constant motion and heavy screening, players must communicate as man-to-man assignments will change multiple times in a possession. Ever see those annoying Duke players yelling on defense? They’re not trash-talking or preparing for tomorrow’s Calc mid-term.

Further, the team’s displayed a duet of mental breakdowns, which are bad in that they’re being committed, and good in that they can be corrected.

First: momentary lack of focus. This is your OJ Howard running untouched through our secondary after safety help bites on an already-covered screen. Playing hard defense also entails sharp focus and court omniscience, not just short bursts of energy when your man has the ball.

Second: the one which pains me the most, lackadaisical transition defense. Teams are making a killing finding quick transition buckets against Clemson. Unlike other issues, this is strictly a lack of effort. Gun, meet foot.

I’ll start with the UNC game. Don’t let the baby blue colors or the letters on the front of the jersey fool you – Clemson should have won this game. The difference in talent was minimal, home court gave us a boost, and the offense performed well enough to win.

We vacillated from man to zone defense nearly the entire game. I assume the zone was employed to help rebounding against UNC’s bigs. It backfired in a major way as Clemson’s guards were constantly out of position or late to rotate – for perimeter defenders that are already prone to mistakes, a zone can bring out the worst in a defense and this is what happened against the Tar Heels.

In this example, all it took was a simple entry pass to Meeks at the high post to suck Shelton Mitchell three feet out of his zone jurisdiction and it leads to a wide open three pointer for Berry. This would fall under momentary lack of focus.

Good teams will find open shooters when the defense breaks down. You can live with a few breakdowns against an offense as good as UNC’s but the frequency and general carelessness of these mistakes is concerning. When you make it this easy for UNC, they will capitalize.

In this next sequence, Jaron Blossomgame completely loses sight of his man. It all starts with a simple backdoor screen around the free throw line. Clemson was switching all screens at this point in the game. Since Grantham’s man is screening Blossomame, the two upperclassmen should switch their man to man assignment with Blossomgame taking the screener Britt and Donte Grantham inheriting the cutting Jackson. Here is a standstill from the beginning of the play. Direct your attention to the free throw line where the screen occurs.

Poor communication between two veteran players

This is where communication is critical. Grantham should be screaming at Blossomgame alerting him of the oncoming screen and signal to switch. Perhaps he did, but regardless, Blossomgame loses track of his assignment and Berry is left wide open again. Here’s the full play (if you’re confused, just keep an eye on Blossomgame because he is too):

If you were watching this game live, you were probably wondering how Joel Berry got this good. He’s averaging 16 ppg so he’s no slouch, but Clemson made him look like Steph Curry as he scored a career high 31 points. He made a few contested shots during the final stretch of the second half that were just great plays – in those instances you just tip your cap and move on. This following play however, is a bit tougher to stomach.

Berry’s hand is smoldering after making two tough shots in a row and already 26 points deep for the game. Avry Holmes is defending Berry but is in help D, meaning he straddles the lane because the ball is two players away and he’s positioned there to help if a UNC player penetrates past his man, although the 260lbs Meeks poses little threat of driving. Notice the ball and Holmes positioning relative to Berry in the corner:

The man having an out of body experience must be guarded closely

It doesn’t take a basketball whiz to know that with great shooters (or those in the middle of an out of body experience as was the case with Berry) you must cheat over toward your man in case the ball comes his way. Holmes should have been two feet closer and prepared to suffocate Berry by the time the ball arrived, not lunging at him in the last moment in desperation. Did I mention Berry was on fire?

One last nugget on this play. If you look at the standstill, DeVoe’s man Jackson has great positioning and could easily convert a layup. In Holmes defense, he may be helping over in fear of this. Holmes generally has a good awareness on the floor, this could represent a lack of trust in DeVoe’s volatile defense.

The Notre Dame game is another case where Clemson’s offense played well enough to win. Notre Dame leads the ACC in three point attempts and they shoot it extremely well from behind the arc at 41%. They are the perfect example of a flawed team that understands its strengths and gets the most out of them. They aggressively fire up threes and work hard to find open shooters. For Clemson, this should have been no secret going into the game.

In the opening minutes, here is Mitchell playing fast and loose in help D leaving one of the best three point shooters in the conference wide open two different times. I’m sure Brownell was pulling his hair out at that point. Luckily, he missed both but this is another display of carelessness and probably went against everything the team was scheming for entering the game:

Clemson’s D did begin to tighten up as the game progressed – a credit to Brownell to make the in-game adjustment -- but Notre Dame was able to consistently convert tough shots. Like the UNC game, these are plays you can live with – good offense will beat good defense in basketball – it’s the mental breakdowns where open shots are gifted to the Irish that leave you shaking your head. These are the difference in a five-point loss and a five-point win.

This is one of the best examples I can find of a total team breakdown. Once the first line of defense breaks with a pick and roll, the entire defense is thrown into disarray.

There is a lot going here -- Holmes doesn’t fight to get over the screen which spells doom from the beginning. Thomas does a good job coming out to defend the ball handler but doesn’t fall back to his man quickly enough. Mitchell does a good job providing timely help defense but is outsized, leaving an indecisive Grantham two shooters to guard on the opposite side of the floor. His hesitancy on what to do leads him to doing nothing at all. Three points.

This play demonstrates a much larger issue of team dynamics that I want to spend some time on. First, the pick and roll defense was pitiful but I’ll focus on the aftermath. Once the entry pass is made, Notre Dame has a numbers advantage with deadly marksmen spaced perfectly around the perimeter. Each player must be accounted for and until the defense can fully rotate, players like Grantham must guard two players for an interim period.

In rotating, defenders must move quickly to leave their man with the trust that the guy next to him will follow suit. Grantham’s responsibility was to rotate to Mitchell’s man who resides in the corner, while Blossomgame would inherit Grantham’s man, the shooter. This could be another case where Grantham lacked trust in Mitchell’s ability to guard the big man and for Thomas to rotate back to his original assignment.

This was equal parts flawless offensive execution and lackluster defense. This was not an easy recovery after the initial breakdown, but tournament teams are remarkably proficient at breaking down defenses and finding open shooters. This level of defense looks like that of a team playing together for the first time in a preseason tournament, not a January conference game. Moving on.

Here's another sore spot for the Tigers -- lackadaisical transition defense. This concept is simple: in man to man defense, you must identify your man at the conclusion of the previous offensive possession, or even before, and get back to guard him or a teammate must pick up your slack. In this case Clemson was returning to a zone defense, which in theory, should be even easier than man to return to your location on the floor and be set. Another way teams are finding inefficiencies in our defense and taking advantage.

Gabe DeVoe had a nice offensive game versus Notre Dame and many who watched will remember him raining threes in the first half. What most will miss however, is that his defense in the second half entirely negated his offensive value for the game. Like Mitchell, DeVoe is giving effort on defense, he just looks lost at times. Notre Dame preyed on him the entire second half because that’s what good teams do.

With less than two minutes to play, Clemson up 68-67 and only three seconds remaining on the shot clock, DeVoe gets distracted on an in-bounds play and leaves the best shooter in the ACC wide open. Inexcusable.

I was unable to incorporate footage from the Virginia game. To summarize, the Tigers did appear to do a better job of rotating and communicating against the Hoos. I’m sure Brownell preached these same concepts in film review all week. In the end, Virginia’s constant motion offense that includes multiple sets and screens was the last thing Clemson needed, and the slowly maturing Tiger defense invariably gave way to open threes.

While team defense was somewhat improved against Virginia, there were too many cases of weak perimeter on-ball defense where players like London Perrantes, who averages 12 ppg, could get to his spots with minimal resistance en route to a season-high 25 points. Notice a trend?

I’m not going to dive into the Georgia Tech and Louisville games. Every team is entitled to off nights in the ACC. This places even greater importance on winning the close ones.

I approached these film breakdowns as if I were an opposing coach identifying weaknesses. In fairness, one could find scores of breakdowns examining any team’s film. I present them to illustrate trends that have cost Clemson a shot at victory in close games, and led to blowouts in others.

According to KenPom, Clemson’s defense ranks 65th in the country. Not as horrible as these video clips may indicate. I attribute this to athletic talent and effort to this point. It’s the finer points of defense where they need to improve coupled with a dash of toughness.

Where we go from here

In the era of one and dones, transfers, and constant player turnover, many teams are still learning to coalesce around midseason. It’s not uncommon for teams to turn the corner around this time and grab momentum heading to March.

Unfortunately, the ACC doesn’t get too much easier with road games against FSU and Duke forthcoming. At its current rate, Clemson could play itself out of the tourney if it doesn’t improve quickly.

The difference between a defensive ranking of 65th and say…35th, is tightening up in these areas. Clemson should reasonably crack the top 50 and I believe they will need to get there to have a chance to live up to preseason expectations.

The positive I take from this is that many of these plays are correctable and I fully expect the defense to look more crisp one month from now. My guess is that many of the talented newcomers have always been offensive minded and never challenged to this degree defensively. It can be humbling for guys that were stars in high school, and most of that stardom had nothing to do with their defensive acumen.

How they handle this adversity will say a lot about their character and how they respond to coaching. Conversely, this will also serve as a measure of Brownell’s coaching ability. This is a “wounded” group, according to Brownell. Managing the psyche of the team and individual personalities will be just as important as the X’s and O’s.