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2018-19 Clemson Basketball Season Preview: Staff Q&A - Expectations, Bench Production, and ACC Battles

New Mexico State v Clemson Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As a final piece for our multi-part Clemson basketball season preview, we posed several questions and let our STS basketball staff weigh in. Check out their answers below and be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Clemson is coming off of one of the best seasons in school history. They won 11 ACC games, earned a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament and reach the Sweet 16 before finally falling to Kansas and finishing with 25 victories.

For the six years prior to this run, the goal was to make the NCAA tournament. What’s an appropriate goal for this year’s team?

Ryan Kantor: Expecting another Sweet 16 run is unfair, but this is a top 25 team and they absolutely should be a NCAA tournament team. With 10 years of experience in the starting backcourt, they should make the NCAA tournament as a 8-seed or better. Meeting that goal would make for a successful year, and if they can add a tournament win or two would be tremendous .

Tom Dianora: Now that Clemson has finally gotten back to the NCAA tournament and even made some noise, the goal should be for that experience to become a launching pad for consistent appearances in the Big Dance. So for this year, the goal would be to get in once again so that the program can start to string together that level of consistency. Reflected in their preseason #22 ranking, the Tigers have the experience—especially in the backcourt, with the returns of Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell to win a couple of games in the tournament again, but for now, I agree with tempering expectations on that front until annual tournament berths become the norm.

Jay Ingles: It’s tough to expect a team to make to make a run of a particular length in the NCAA Tournament because there is so much to account for with matchups, etc., but I don’t have any problem stating that this team should be expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament again. A No. 7 or 8 seed seems reasonable, but with Clemson’s experience, the ceiling is probably higher than that. I think expecting the Tigers to reach 20 wins in the regular season is fair.

Calvin Craft: Can this team do what no other Clemson basketball team has done and make at least a Sweet 16 in consecutive years? That is a lofty goal, but any team who survives this brutally hard ACC and makes the NCAA will be positioned to make a run - depending on matchups. Look no further than recent deep runs by Syracuse and Florida State. Clemson will have the pedigree you need for such a run with veteran talent at guard plus a post presence in Eli Thomas. Health will be key, as I’m not sure this team can overcome an injury like Donte Grantham’s last year to a key player, but if the roster stays intact it is a realistic goal.

Clearly making the NCAA tournament has to happen or you’d have to say the season was a disappointment (barring bad injury luck like Notre Dame had last year).

Some huge revelations around the recruitment of 5-star recruit Zion Williamson broke this offseason. The FBI captured a conversation between a Kansas basketball assistant coach and Adidas rep Merle Code. In it, Code said: “…between me and you, he (Zion Williamson) asked for some stuff… He’s asking for opportunities from an occupational perspective, he’s asking for cash in the pocket, and he’s asking for housing for his family.” To which the Kansas assistant replied “…if that’s what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we’re going to have to find some way.”

Of course Zion didn’t go to Kansas. He was a heavy Clemson lean until Coach K swooped in at the last minute and somehow changed his mind.

How does this whole episode impact your opinion, if at all, of Coach Brownell, Coach K, and the state of college basketball at large?

Jay Ingles: I’ve never had anything particularly nice to say about Coach K, and his holier than thou attitude with regard to this whole thing is honestly par for the course to me. It really doesn’t change my opinion of him because I’ve never respected the guy at all. I think the whole thing just shows that Brownell walks the walk concerning his “Do it the right way” mantra. It’s not shocking to find that there may have suspect circumstances around Williamson’s recruitment, and it has to at least ease the frustration about losing him as a recruit if you’re a Clemson fan, knowing that Clemson may have needed to play the dirty game to actually have a chance to sign him.

Calvin Craft: I think this just goes to show that most of these teams are using more than just their pedigree in recruiting these top 50 guys. The marriage of the shoe companies to their “top” schools is more than just gear and licensing. It is pretty ironic that Kansas just might have to vacate their Final Four run from last year, which would make the last two programs to knock Clemson out of the Sweet 16 vacators.

As for Coach K, he sold his soul a long time ago. I respect his coaching ability for certain, but he changed his recruiting model after getting shredded by C.J. McCollum in the NCAA tournament and I have little doubt it mirrors what the Jayhawks and Cardinal have been suspected/found guilty of. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Clemson program is entirely clean, but Brownell isn’t going to come close to doing what a lot of these others have done, and he certainly isn’t going to enter a bidding war with teams like Kansas. I will say Brad is going to need to get a guy to the NBA who can stick, so the futures of Eli Thomas, Shelton Mitchell, and Marcquise Reed are important. I also think Brad and his staff are doing a much better job of finding the right fits for the program.

Ryan Kantor: More than anything, this gives some context to why Coach Brownell has had trouble landing major recruits out of high school and has elected to work the transfer-wire. This isn’t a good look for Coach K, and when Brownell is going up against Duke, Louisville, and Kansas - who very well may have an assistant facing possible jail time - you have to look at some of the past failures a little differently. I certainly don’t trust the NCAA to use the evidence the FBI has uncovered to significantly clean up the game, but Clemson would seem to benefit if they do.

Clemson brings back a ton of experience in the backcourt with Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed returning. Eli Thomas returns and in a surprise turn of events, defensive specialist David Skara returns. Aamir Simms appears to be the early front runner to start in Gabe DeVoe’s vacated spot. That’s a pretty strong starting lineup, but what do you expect from the bench?

Tom Dianora: Despite the departures of DeVoe, Donte Grantham, and Mark Donnal, Clemson’s depth could offer some excitement this season. The Tigers—whose positional strength last season was the guard play of DeVoe, Reed, and Mitchell—will be able to complement that strong backcourt play with more size up front. Brad Brownell continued his great work in the transfer game by landing 6-foot-10 forward/center Javan White, a graduate transfer formerly of Oral Roberts. Incoming three-star freshman Trey Jemison is also an exciting addition, even if he might still be a bit raw in his debut collegiate season. Sophomore Malik William, a 6-foot-8 power forward, adds to the team’s frontcourt depth.

Beyond what appears to be improved frontcourt depth, Clemson will rely on Clyde Trapp to elevate his roles from last season and be the true back-up PG. Trapp should lock down a more solidified backup point guard role.

Jay Ingles: I actually think Clemson’s depth could improve a bit despite losing a couple important pieces. Skara returning is huge, and while you may see the starting 5 of Mitchell, Reed, Skara, Simms and Thomas, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brownell eschew that in favor of a 3-guard lineup with some frequency. The problem with the aforementioned lineup is that, while neither Simms nor Skara is really a true 4, neither of them is a true 3 by any stretch of the imagination either. I think you’ll see a little more of those two platooning at the 4 again rather than playing at the same time in some indiscriminate 3-4 combo where neither has a real position. You really need a tertiary ball-handler, and those guys don’t offer that.

With that said, the frontcourt depth should be very good with Skara and Simms at the 4 and transfer Javan White backing up Thomas at the 5 (and potentially allowing Brownell to experiment with sliding Thomas to the 4). White isn’t an overly skilled player but he has averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds last season at Oral Roberts and is a high-quality reserve. I think Trey Jemison may redshirt given his lack of polish and a minor injury that he is recovering from. I just think it would be a waste to burn a year on him when you have the four players just mentioned in addition to Malik William, who can provide minutes as a grinder.

In the backcourt is where the questions lie. The Tigers really need Clyde Trapp to take a step as a backup point guard because they may be looking to him as a starter in 2019-2020. Trapp is super athletic and can defend but needs to show that he has a grasp on how to run an offense. He’s nowhere near the natural that Mitchell is in that regard.

John Newman should play a lot of minutes as a freshman and could easily be the first guard off the bench. He is an elite defender, and that will get you on the court for Brownell. It wouldn’t shock me if he turns into a starter at some point this season if Brownell reverts to a three-guard situation. Hunter Tyson can shoot it, but it’s hard to say whether he’ll play much because he needs to add some weight. They need somebody to help fill Gabe DeVoe’s shooting void though.

Calvin Craft: The Tigers are not a pressing team, so Brownell usually goes with an 8-man rotation at the most in competitive games. The top 5 are set with Mitchell, Reed, Skara, Simms, and Thomas. Trapp, and freshmen Newman and Tyson will battle for guard minutes off the bench. Then you have Willam, Jemison, and White battling for post minutes. Obviously post depth is usually more critical because of fouling, and replacing Mark Donnal is nearly as big a deal as DeVoe, in my opinion, as he allowed Brownell to pull Thomas after just one foul early in games last year which helped save Eli from the foul trouble he experienced the year before.

We will know a lot about how Brownell feels about the backups inside based on how he reacts to any early fouls from Thomas this year. The team really needs someone to help fill some of that perimeter shooting void left by DeVoe. He showed signs late last year, but I remember Austin Ajukwa showing signs at the end of his first couple of years just to fade back into the dark before he transferred out.

It’s possible Brownell will play some “small” lineups with Simms sliding to the 5 and Skara to the 4, but I would take that as a sign the three pure posts mentioned above just aren’t developing like we need.

I agree with Jay that Trapp’s development is a critical thing to watch. He wasn’t a pure point guard coming out of high school like Mitchell, so his learning curve has been higher, but a coach I trust raved about his upside when he signed with Clemson and I’m hoping we will see him blossom the way DeVoe did in those last couple of years.

Most view Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina as the top tier and Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Pittsburgh as the bottom tier. Who in the middle group of nine teams do you think will be tough on Clemson? Do you have any thoughts on how that middle group may shake out?

Jay Ingles: Florida State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech are teams that come to mind. The Tigers fortunately get the Hokies at home this year. They get Cuse and FSU twice each, so the results of those games could have a big effect on the jockeying in the middle part of the conference.

Calvin Craft: Outside of probably Pittsburgh, there really are no “easy” outs in this league, especially on the road. Virginia Tech has been a problem for Brownell ever since Buzz Williams got there, so that is a game I’m circling. Clemson really should have won the last two Syracuse games as well. But I’d vote for the Hokies as the toughest matchup outside of the top 4.

Ryan Kantor: You have to be cautious with KenPom until you get 10 or so games under your belt, but it’s worth nothing that Clemson is #14 in their pre-season rankings. Syracuse comes in at #8 and will be tough to edge out for that 4-seed in the ACC which gets the double-bye. The Orangemen bring back their starting five, which includes Tyus Battle, who averaged 19ppg, and Frank Howard (not that one!) who averaged 14ppg and nearly 5apg. KenPom has FSU at #15, Miami at #21, and VT at #22. Those games will be critical in deciding how the “upper-middle class” of the conference shakes out.

Clemson gets Nebraska, Mississippi State, and South Carolina before playing 18 ACC games this year. Which games are you most looking forward to? What are some of the most intriguing games on the schedule?

Ryan Kantor: Clemson will participate in the Cayman Classic and could draw Georgia and/or Creighton. Either would make for a good early barometer game.

Just before Christmas, Clemson goes to Columbia to play the Cocks in a game that KenPom has as a toss-up (54% Clemson). A win would be their third straight over Frank Martin’s Gamecocks and may be helpful in recruiting.

Clemson plays Syracuse and Florida State twice, Miami on the road, and Virginia Tech at home. Those will be the most impactful games in determining where the Tigers finish in the ACC standings. Clemson also gets UNC at home, which is always exciting. If Clemson can find a win against the Heels, the season immediately feels special and it could open some attractive seeding possibilities if Clemson is successful in those other big swing games.

Calvin Craft: I always revel in any victory the team can secure against the Gamecocks. In my opinion, if you are a true top 4-5 ACC team you should beat USCjr, Mississippi State, and Nebraska. Playing in Columbia will make that game tougher, for sure, but those other two are against good but not great teams who will likely be middle of the pack in their leagues. I just have very high expectations for a team returning this much veteran talent. I have as much expectation for this team as I did the 2008 team and the 1997 team. The real question mark for me is replacing Gabe DeVoe’s perimeter presence and if enough guys step up to fill most of that void the team should be as good as we have seen since Dale Davis and Elden Campbell.

Tom Dianora: The Nebraska matchup feels stale, as teh Tigers faced them just two years ago. Mississippi State should be a fun one though, as they return pretty much all of their key players from last year’s team that made it to the NIT semifinals. That’s apparently reflected in their No. 18 preseason ranking. Beyond that, the South Carolina game is always both a fun and important one for the rivalry and recruiting implications.

Clemson has a tough start to ACC play, facing both Duke and Syracuse on the road to start the year before coming home to take on Virginia. Taking two or even three losses here is a very strong possibility, so I will be interested in seeing not only how those games go, but also how they react down the road if some early adversity strikes in conference play.