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How Sustainable is Clemson Basketball’s 2017 Success?

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Merry Christmas! Now you find out if you get to keep your presents!

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the year, the STS basketball staff analyzed the Tigers’ roster and schedule. We knew they could score in bunches, but defense and rebounding looked like they may be challenges. As such, we pegged them as a fringe NIT team. Now, 12 games into the season, how is it looking?

Rebounding

Losing Sidy Djitte (7.7 RPG) and Jaron Blossomgame (6.3 RPG) elicited concern about how well this team would rebound the ball. To our surprise, they’ve actually been improved in this area so far.

Last season, Jaron Blossomgame played as an under-sized stretch-PF, but was still a strong contributor on the glass, collecting 6.3 RPG. With Donte Grantham shifting from SF to PF this year, some regression was expected, but Grantham has looked stronger and more willing to bang in the paint than ever before. He is averaging 6.3 RPG.

Elijah Thomas has also done a great deal to fill the void. He’s boosted his rebounds per game from 4.2 to 8.3 to lead the team. Add in increased contributions from Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe and the emergence of David Skara and the Tigers may just be improved on the glass.

A year ago, they grabbed only 67.8% of available defense rebounds (295th). So far this season, they are hauling in 75.9% of available defense rebounds. This could dip some as they play the bigger teams in the ACC, but last season they actually rebounded better in ACC play. That may be due to the emergence of Eli Thomas. Fortunately, this season offers an analogous situation with David Skara joining the fray just two games ago. This improvement appears: Sustainable

Defense

The Tigers defense looks dramatically improved from when we last watched them collapse against Oakland in the NIT. Last year, they allowed 100.5 points per 100 possessions. This year they are allowing just 93.5.

Eli Thomas has been a tremendous defensive presence in the post. He has blocked 10.6% of opponents two-point shots while he has been on the court. That ranks 33rd in the national among all players. It’s an improvement over Sidy Djitte’s 3.9% or his own 7.5% last season.

The recent addition of David Skara (back from NCAA eligibility-related suspension), arguably the team’s best defender, lends optimism to the argument that the defensive improvement from a year ago can keep up during ACC play. Last year, that was not the case. After a solid 10-2 non-conference season, the Tigers went just 6-12 in ACC play. They allowed opponents to score 75+ points just twice in 13 non-conference games (including the NIT), but in ACC play it happened 11 times in 20 contests.

Florida, scoring 112.2 points per 100 possessions, is the best offense they’ve faced thus far. Six ACC teams (including Clemson) rank above the Gators. Therefore, it is still yet to be determined if the defensive improvement is sustainable.

The Verdict

Clemson sits at 11-1. To make the NCAA tournament, they’ll likely need to reach about 20 regular season wins. To get there, they’ll need a 9-9 ACC regular season. With that as the target, here’s how the remaining schedule looks:

Clemson Basketball Record

Record KenPom W% Top Tier Games KenPom W% Second Tier Games
Record KenPom W% Top Tier Games KenPom W% Second Tier Games
at Ohio State (W) Ohio (W)
at Florida (W) Hofstra (W)
67% Louisville Temple (L)
63% Notre Dame South Carolina (W)
53% North Carolina 84% NC State
45% Duke 61% Miami
64% at NC State 92% Pittsburgh
29% at North Carolina 89% Georgia Tech
23% at Virginia 65% FSU
61% at Wake Forest 66% at Boston College
40% at Florida State 72% at Georgia Tech
23% at Virginia Tech
52% at Syracuse
Current Record Against Tier 2 - 0 3 - 1
Need in remaining for 20 Wins 3 - 8 6 - 1
KenPom projection for remaining games 5 - 6 5 - 2

Reaching 20 wins will be tough, but the strong non-conference showing makes it suddenly look do-able. KenPom is very optimistic. They have the Tigers going 5-8 in their “top tier” games. Games against Duke, UNC (x2), and Virginia may be overwhelming, but Louisville and Notre Dame at home are winnable as are road games at Wake Forest (probably not a top tier game if we re-sorted), NC State, and Syracuse.

In the “second tier” portion of the ACC schedule, home games against Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and NC State should be wins while road trips to Georgia Tech and Boston College are prime opportunities for ACC road wins.

The Tigers strong performance non-conference play is not enough for me to move my projection from fringe-NIT team to NCAA tournament favorite, but it is enough to start thinking of this as a bubble team. That’s fantastic progress and reason to get excited about Clemson basketball.

Be sure to check STS tomorrow! We begin our deep dive into the Sugar Bowl with detailed analysis from several angles. Until then, check out these preview videos from Mark Rogers and our own Mark Gordon.