Part of handling seasons well as a fan is having a realistic expectation for a team’s performance. Judging the job a coach or team does during the season usually involves comparing and contrasting those expectations against what eventually happens. Sometimes this gets tricky during a season when a team starts out slow and then gets hot down the stretch (see Syracuse’s final four run from 2015-2016 as exhibit A). Other times, a team will do good things early which raises expectations only to regress to the mean or below it (see 2016-2017 Clemson as exhibit B). Clemson football started out the season 6-1, which most fans would have gladly accepted if told in August. However, once Clemson beat all the supposed toughest teams in that stretch, the one loss to Syracuse hit a lot harder and worse. Suddenly that 6-1 wasn’t as welcome.
It is hard to know what to think about Clemson basketball going into this season. A portion of the fan base (heavily represented on the web) soured significantly on Coach Brad Brownell as last year’s team flamed out down the stretch and suffered an embarrassing meltdown loss to Oakland in the first round of the NIT. This was a bitter pill to swallow for a group expecting to break the drought of NCAA tournament bids, especially after the team got off to an excellent start at 11-2 with road wins against eventual NCAA final four participant South Carolina and another NCAA tourney team in Wake Forest. Clemson was in prime position to beat eventual national champion North Carolina to go to 12-2 and 2-0 in the ACC, but absolutely choked the game away from the free throw line and lost in OT. The wheels proceeded to fly off the vehicle at that point as the team lost 11 out of the next 14 games before finally winning 3 straight but then bowing out of the ACC tournament against Duke. The team seemed to find new and creative ways to lose during that span, from absolute wood shed beatings at the hands of Louisville and FSU, to gut-wrenching buzzer-beating losses to Syracuse and Virginia Tech. The common denominator, to me, was an inherit lack of toughness mentally and in some cases physically. That type of toughness usually has to come from within a team and its leadership.
Now this year’s team comes in with lowered expectations and no returning All-ACC star like Jaron Blossomgame. Some would say Brad Brownell is on the hot seat, but I get more of a sense that it would take a complete disaster of a season this year for a change to be made. Some staff changes were made, including the firing of long time Brownell assistant Mike Winiecki and the addition of former Tiger great Terrell McIntyre. While Winiecki was an outstanding post development coach, normally having to work with serious project players like Josh Smith, Landry Nnoko and Sidy Djitte, Brownell simply had to find more recruiting punch on his staff in an effort to secure his job long term. The recent shoe company recruiting scandal that put some coaches out of a job, including Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, actually adds additional hope to Brownell and might help level the recruiting field just a touch as the aftershocks will be heard for a while. Be that as it may, the Clemson Administration won’t be too long in the patience department if more of the same mediocre basketball is seen this season, as the empty seats in Littlejohn will be plentiful.
I broke this year’s schedule into three tiers of games.
“Top Tier” games are those against teams either more talented than Clemson, in tough road environments, or against coaches who have proven to give Brownell fits no matter whom they have on the roster. In these games, winning 25% or more should be considered great.
“Second Tier” are not gimmies, but either the matchup or the location puts Clemson in a position where winning is very realistic. Clemson should aim to win 70% or more of these Tier B games.
“Bottom Tier” games are those that Clemson should win no matter what. These are typically contests where Clemson pays the opponent to visit Littlejohn Coliseum and picks up an easy win. Fans should expect 100% of these to be victories and anything short of that is a disaster.
KenPom, using a similar tiering structure based on quality of opponent and venue, labels them as “A games” and “B games.” You may hear us reference upcoming matchups with those labels when previewing games in the season, but for now, we’ll continue to discuss in tiers of Top, Second, and Bottom Tier games.
A successful 2017-18 season for Clemson, would be winning:
25-30% of Top Tier games
75-80% of Second Tier games
100% of Bottom Tier games
For comparison, this is how last year broke down.
Top Tier Games: 1-9 10% (Goal Missed)
Second Tier Games: 11-7 61% (Goal Missed)
Bottom Tier Games: 5-0 100% (Goal Met)
Out of those games, five tier B losses were games Clemson was in prime position to win and blew it. Just win three of those five and you hit 78% and are likely NCAA bound. From the Tier A games, you had the UNC loss and the FSU loss at home where Clemson had late leads and a very good shot at winning. Had those two gone our way, that makes tier A 30% and goal met and the team is likely in the NCAA tourney even with no change to tier B. Being in the ACC, Clemson simply hitting two of the three goals can be enough for a bid provided tier C isn’t a problem like it was two years ago.
This year, Clemson’s schedule has a few more “Top Tier” games than last season:
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|
The best REALISTIC case is 18-12 headed into the ACC tournament. It is hard for me to justify a record any better than that when looking at this schedule. That should be enough for an NCAA bid provided the teams we’ve listed as Top Tier hold up as good teams.
You can certainly argue the road game at NC State or at Wake should be Second Tier games considering our success against them in recent years. I just know NC State has more raw talent and if their new coach can harness it, winning at their place isn’t realistic. Wake made the NCAA tourney, but is defensively challenged so that one could go our way. Buzz Williams has owned Brownell, as has Tony Bennett, so road games against them are automatic Top Tier contests. At UNC is at the very top of Top Tier (some might say top of the hill), considering we have never won in Chapel Hill.
To reach 20 regular season wins, Clemson would need some out-of-nowhere contribution like Donte Grantham putting some unreal season together, or a couple of freshmen surpassing expectations and adding very good depth for this to happen. Considering Grantham’s mental struggles and Sheldon Mitchell’s balky knee, I can’t project that.
So there you have it! Shooting for 18 regular season wins, with a win or two in the ACC tourney, for something like an 8-10 seed in the NCAA tourney, is needed to call this year a success. That leaves very little margin for error, as anything less likely means another NIT bid or nothing at all. Please check back for our upcoming breakout of how we believe Clemson will perform against this schedule shortly!