We’ve previewed the players, the schedule, and talked a little advanced stats. Now we conclude our Clemson basketball season preview with our final assessment and predictions on what this season holds for the Clemson Tigers.
Despite the losses of starting SG Avry Holmes (graduation) and backup PG Ty Hudson (transfer), Clemson’s backcourt looks to be a major strength, particularly on offense.
PG Shelton Mitchell returns following a very good, but injury-plagued (knee) season. He led the team in assists and completely changed the way the Tigers play in transition. He averaged 10.8 ppg and shot a team best .453 from three, the latter of which came as an unexpected bonus. SG Marcquise Reed, now a junior, will likely get his first opportunity as a starter and is a major scoring threat. Veteran Gabe DeVoe, freshman Clyde Trapp, and redshirt freshman AJ Oliver will provide depth.
The Tigers should be solid offensively, even without PF Jaron Blossomgame, who averaged over 17 points per game, last season. In addition to the aforementioned guards, Elijah Thomas, proved to be one of the most “skilled” true post-players the Tigers have had since Trevor Booker. While there is little size behind him in terms of depth, Thomas is a great offensive complement to the guards. Last season the team finished 35th in offensive efficiency. If Mitchell, Reed, and Thomas stay healthy, that metric would increase further.
Last year, Clemson’s defense was weak and unclutch. The Tigers finished just 85th in defensive efficiency and it may not get better. Defensive rebounding was an even bigger issue. Clemson was barely in the top 300 in defensive rebounding percentage and now Sidy Djitte and Jaron Blossomgame are gone.
The Tigers failed to come up with key defensive stops late in close games. Several times it was too much for the offense to overcome. Against VT and Syracuse, Clemson scored 81 points, but lost 81-82 in each contest. Now they’ve lost Avry Holmes, their best perimeter defender and Sidy Djitte, their only rim protector. Legend Robertin, the reserve center, played sparingly but had potential to be a shot blocker. He has transferred to Nicholls State. Elijah Thomas is not a shot blocker, despite his height. Who will step up defensively?
On the glass, the Tigers not only have to improve, but do so while replacing two of their three best rebounders, Blossomgame and Djitte. They’ll likely play with some small lineups and need someone beyond Elijah Thomas to step up on the glass.
- Notch a win against a Carolina: Anytime Clemson plays in the Dean Dome, a historic streak is on the line for the Heels. A season in which the Tigers snap the streak would be a successful one. The Tigers make that trip this year. They also get Carolina and the lesser Carolina at home. Picking up even just one win in those three games would energize the program.
- Win 10 non-conference games: If the Tigers can manage a 10-2 record entering conference play, they can lend some real optimism to conference play and capture the fan base’s attention at the conclusion of football season.
- Win 9 ACC regular season games: At a glance, this may feel unrealistic, but Clemson has actually played .500 or better in the ACC regular season in three of the past six year and eight of the past 11. Clemson hasn’t advanced past the round of 64 since the 1996-97 season, but they’ve won their fair share of conference games.
To reach those goals, Clemson needs a combination of the following things to go their way:
- Defense and rebounding must improve. Clemson needs major contributions from new faces. Valparaiso-transfer David Skara has been praised as the best defender on the team “by far.” At 6’8”, he’ll need to be physical and aggressive on the glass too. Freshman Aamir Simms, a 6’7” freshman forward from Virginia may also be that guy. Michigan-transfer Mark Donnal is another option. If at least one of these players can’t step up and become legitimate ACC-level player at PF and give Clemson both defense and rebounding, Clemson will be bullied by bigger stronger teams with frequency.
- Donte Grantham is a huge X-factor. If the senior continues to underwhelm, the Tigers will be limited, but if he can become a consistent scorer while attacking the glass more consistently this team suddenly looks much different. The ceiling is still high, but he’s still unproven after three years. He’ll be asked to play PF when Thomas takes a breather or when DeVoe is in at SF. Either or both of these may be common.
- Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas must stay healthy. Mitchell is absolutely critical to Clemson’s offense. If his knee injury crops up again and he is forced to miss time, the Tigers suddenly become thin in the backcourt and rely on freshman for depth and shooting guards to distribute. With the graduation of Sidy Djitte and the transfer of Legend Robertin, there is no depth behind Elijah Thomas. The Tigers will be forced to play small lineups while he rests, but if he gets hurt, it’ll be constant small lineups.
Getting all those “must haves” line up is certainly possible, but unlikely.
Calvin Craft did a great schedule breakdown by tier so I’m going to pull that in here before discussing expectations:
2017-18 Clemson Basketball Schedule Breakdown
|Top Tier Games||Second Tier Games||Bottom Tier Games|
|Top Tier Games||Second Tier Games||Bottom Tier Games|
|Louisville||South Carolina||Western Carolina|
|Notre Dame||NC State||NC A&T|
|North Carolina||Miami||Texas Southern|
|at Ohio State||Georgia Tech||Samford|
|at Florida||FSU||UL Lafayette|
|at NC State||at Boston College|
|at North Carolina||at Georgia Tech|
|at Virginia||Ohio (neutral site)|
|at Wake Forest||Charleston Classic (TBD)|
|at Florida State||Charleston Classic (TBD)|
|at Virginia Tech|
Clemson’s non-conference schedule has quite a few cupcakes. Frankly, it really makes the case for the impending 20-game ACC schedule. Six “purchased” home games against bottom-tier opponents represent six must-win games. Clemson will take care of business in these games, but the non-conference also presents some really big challenges with games at Ohio State, at Florida, vs. South Carolina and potentially Temple or Auburn in the Charleston Classic. The Gamecocks should take a step back following a historic season and could grant the Tigers their first goal - a win over “a Carolina.” A win over the Cocks would also pave the way for the Tigers to reach Goal #2, a 10+ win non-conference record.
It’s in ACC play where things become more physical and there are no “free” wins in which our staff worries they’ll falter. To reach 9-9, they’ll have to win several big home games (e.g., Notre Dame, Miami, Georgia Tech, Florida State) and at least a couple of tough road games (e.g., at Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest, at NC State). If they fail to do this, they’ll have to come up with wins against teams like Duke, UNC, and Louisville to make up the difference.
To accomplish this we need key players to stay healthy, new players to step up, and old players to progress. It’s hard to count on all three of these happening for Clemson. That’s why our writing staff thinks the Tigers are most likely to fall just short of our goals and be a fringe NIT-team. They have potential though, and with the only seniors being Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham, this could be the set-up for an even better 2018-19. Either way, this core is a likable one, and one worth supporting. Please follow us throughout the year as STS will continue to provide the most in-depth analysis of Clemson basketball on the web.