Clemson fans got the official news on Monday, March 20th, that Brad Brownell would be retained for next season. This was after a range of tweets discussing overtures to Will Wade (and really, who knows how many others were contacted on back channels about the Clemson job). Wade, of course, was the obvious choice to many had D Rad decided to make the move the vast majority of Tiger fans were hoping to see. Watching so many quality teams and coaches go at it in the NCAA tournament only makes the glaring holes in the current Tiger program harder to stomach. Clemson fans are now being asked to suck it up and show blind loyalty to Brownell in the hopes of some change that quite frankly seems extremely unlikely under the current regime. I certainly don’t envy the Clemson ticket folks tasked with trying to promote and sell fans on the 2017-2018 season, and the IPTAY folks will be leaning on Dabo Swinney and the football positivity to shield Brownell on the upcoming spring tour. Simply put, those who have invested time and money into this regime are not getting a return on investment. It is one thing to flounder in women’s basketball where even the good days of Jim Davis brought a passing interest, it is another to see a revenue, high profile sport embarrass itself in a secondary postseason tournament after not even making a tournament for two straight years. Monday’s announcement felt a lot like being handed a life preserver on a 747 plummeting to the earth.
That said, I’ll move forward into reviewing the 2016-2017 basketball season in an attempt to assess strengths, weaknesses, and what needs to happen for next year to change the narrative.
Let’s start with the GOOD: The departing Jaron Blossomgame once again put up an All-ACC caliber season despite seeing a hefty drop in 3 point production from the year before. His point per game average only dropped 1 because his overall post game was better this year than last. Clemson also would post Landry Nnoko last year whereas this year there was very little attempt to post the center, so JB was getting more touches in the paint than the year before. He certainly was not the reason this year’s team fizzled and put up a stellar 24 points in his final game. Hopefully he will not see a dent to his NBA stock and will be able to carve out a career at the next level.
Shelton Mitchell showed why he was such a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school. Unfortunately, knee trouble stunted some of his progress early and then again down the stretch, but he is by far the best point guard Clemson has had since Demontez Stitt (RIP). Mitchell has another gear in the open floor, is a good free throw shooter, and showed a much improved three point shot during the final five weeks of the season. Mitchell can finish at the rim. Mitchell has work to do as a defender but there are tools to work with in that department if he is willing to step up. He will certainly be option 1 and the alpha dog of next year’s team provided he is healthy.
Both Marcquise Reed and Elijah Thomas flashed some great things during the season. Reed showed he can create his own shot (which is a major need when you play with a shot clock) and Thomas showed he could be a strong back to the basket option going forward. I include them here more because of promise than of delivery at this time.
Avry Holmes finished with a stellar 44.2% three point percentage in his final year. He got to play off the ball a lot more with Mitchell in the picture and it helped with his perimeter game.
The BAD: The Clemson defense, for so long the backbone of the Brownell program, took a major step backwards this season. On paper, Mitchell should be an upgrade to Jordan Roper as a defender while Holmes, Grantham, and Blossomgame all returned. Djitte is not the athlete that Landry Nnoko was so a dip there is understandable, but there really is not a lot of excuses for the Tigers not being better on defense. Reed came in as a scorer but his presence alone is not enough to explain what happened. While the defense was better in March, to a degree, it fell apart along with everything else against Oakland when they rang up 50 second half points. Last year’s team was too small on the perimeter for an ACC team, but this one was WORSE on defense despite improved length (Mitchell and Reed vs. Roper and Holmes).
Donte Grantham. What else can be said about this guy? Grantham absolutely vanished for the majority of the ACC season and Brownell finally started taking minutes from him the last three weeks. There are issues here, clearly, and you wonder if Grantham will stick around for another year or seek greener pastures on the transfer circuit. Whatever happens, Clemson cannot afford a guy like that to fail. We saw it with Milton Jennings and the disaster his senior season was. I remember when Dabo Swinney was dealing with Kelvin Grant in football. Grant was talented, but he couldn’t be trusted. Swinney desperately wanted to “fire him” and play another player but there just wasn’t anyone else who could step up. Brownell just didn’t have a real option here, but he can only blame himself with recruiting. Guys should blossom in their last two years, but Grantham posted his lowest ppg of his career and got to the line LESS than ever before. Brownell desperately needs Grantham to figure it out and at LEAST become as productive as he was as a sophomore if he is going to remain at Clemson. That’s a very dicey wagon to hitch up to.
Sidy Djitte: I hate to put Sidy here because the guy tries hard and does do some things well. Heck, we might even be missing him next year! However, a 6’10” guy has got to be able to finish at the rim and catch the ball way better than Djitte ever showed he could. I’ll give him credit for becoming a pretty decent free throw shooter after being horrendous early in his career, but in the end he just wasn’t able to be a big minute guy at this level when Clemson needed him to be. Djitte was also a major factor in critical late game defensive blunders that led to losses against Syracuse and VT.
The UGLY: Clemson recruiting. Brad Brownell has signed and produced a total of TWO All-ACC caliber guys in his entire run at Clemson. This year’s team was built on three transfers to go with Blossomgame, Djitte, and (cough) Grantham. Meanwhile, signed players Ty Hudson, Legend Robertin, and Scott Spencer played little if at all. I can’t say I expect Clemson to sign instant impact talents, but the success of previous coaches Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell came from putting together a solid class which was the foundation of a four year run. Almost all the guys they brought in had a role beyond that of a walk on. At least DeVoe has a role I guess. You can have success with transfers and many coaches out there do a great job of that. It remains to be seen if Brownell can make it work.
March matters for hoops. Nobody remembers that Indiana had huge wins early in the year when they don’t make the NCAA, get bounced in the NIT, and fire their coach. Clemson fans can remember beating USCjr, but it rings a little hollow when the Cocks are moving to the sweet 16. Brad Brownell has not produced in March, at ALL, beyond a play-in victory his first year and one NIT run behind K.J. McDaniels. His teams have been irrelevant when it matters most. Clemson’s best win was probably the win at USCjr but they were missing their best player. Next best? Home win against UNCW or sweeping Wake who made (barely) the NCAA tourney. At least last year saw wins against Duke and Louisville and Syracuse. It hurts to not be relevant in March, like ever, when you see programs like Miami, Florida State, Arkansas, and Virginia Tech make the field. Now Clemson fans are a mix of pissed off or indifferent without much hope of a change going into next year. I’ll say this now, if Brownell somehow turns this thing around and makes D Rad look brilliant for keeping him, it would be the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in college sports in my lifetime. The much more likely scenario is fans will suffer through another deflating season before the ax drops and a change is made. If the right fit for Clemson is out there now but not then? That will be the ugliest thing of all.
What needs to happen next year: First and foremost, the Tigers have to settle on a style of play that it can win with. After being a poor man’s Virginia for most of Brownell’s time, the Tigers were more like a poor man’s Virginia Tech this year. VT at least has the excuse that it lacks real size, but Clemson sports enough size on the roster to rebound and defend better than it did. VT also scraps like crazy and played above their level (even losing a top guy down the stretch). Team chemistry was lacking, ESPECIALLY in terms of leadership. Some guys went off the rails down the stretch of tight games and nobody seemed to be the guy to step up and demand better. The best teams (and usually the one’s considered best coached) are really the ones that coach themselves. There has to be a buy in to the approach and the message and Brownell has got to find guys who will buy into his.
Elijah Thomas and Marcquise Reed have got to become two way players. Both guys have scoring ability but struggled with team defensive concepts. Reed in particular pressed and forced things too much late in games. Thomas has to avoid foul trouble because there really is nobody but Robertin to play behind him next year.
David Skara and Donte Grantham combine to offset the loss of Blossomgame. No one guy can replace the great JB, but Skara and Grantham offer POTENTIAL of being guys who can do some inside/outside scoring and defending. This is likely the most iffy prospect of all.
AJ Oliver is an impact freshman. Oliver has a much better chance since he has been in Clemson this semester. Clemson needs a scoring wing beyond just Reed and Oliver could emerge as that guy.
There is a ton of pressure on the program next season since Brownell is returning. Everybody knows the team has to pull out a NCAA tourney year and show real progress for this regime to continue. That is tough to handle at the top and within, as the season provides enough pressure on its own. Players have said the right things about Brownell but we heard the same about Jack Leggett as well heading into his last year. In the end, the formula just wasn’t right and a change was made. Leggett at LEAST had a Hall of Fame resume backing up his last chance. Brownell somehow got one without that clout. The real truth behind this weekend will eventually come to the surface and I can’t wait to see what it was. However, the University is currently 0-2 bringing back embattled coaches in Tommy Bowden and Jack Leggett. I just hope there is a Dabo Swinney or Monte Lee out there on the other side of this for hoops.