We’ll be recapping the 2017-18 Clemson Tiger basketball season all week with a series of articles that will touch on several different facets of this team and Clemson’s basketball program.
In this article, we look back at the goals and expectations we had for this team, and compare them to their performance. Then we’ll discuss the key factors that led to them breaking through and having the success they did.
To start, let’s look back at what we laid out as our goals back on November 7th, 2017 in our season preview.
- 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.
Clemson accomplished these goals and then some as they went 2-1 against UNC and South Carolina, won 11 non-conference games, and won 11 ACC games plus another in the ACC tournament.
Now let’s look as what we set as our “expectations.”
“...our writing staff thinks the Tigers are most likely to fall just short of our goals and be a fringe NIT-team.”
Welp, that was wrong! We cited the imperative for the defense and rebounding to improve, but noted this was unlikely given the team’s leading shot blocker and the two leading rebounders were departing. We also underscored the importance of Shelton Mitchell and Eli Thomas staying healthy, as there was little depth behind them, something that was proven true in two games without Mitchell. We didn’t think all those things would happen.
How’d they do it?
More or less, all those things broke in Clemson’s favor. Let’s look at them one-by-one.
Improving the Defense:
Clemson ranked just 86th in defensive efficiency in 2016-17 season. They did a poor job keeping teams off the free throw and three-point line and often gave them extra chances with offensive rebounds.
Losing Djitte, Holmes, and Blossomgame would seem to exasperate these issues. Instead we saw Eli Thomas take a huge step in his development. Eli wasn’t a great rim protector in 16-17, but became one in 17-18. His Block Rate (% of two-point shots he blocked while on the court) jumped from just 7.5% to 10.0%, which was top 25 nationally.
The loss of Holmes was largely made up for with the huge senior season Gabe DeVoe had, taking those minutes and playing at an extremely high level for the first time in his career.
Jaron Blossomgame wasn’t a bad defender, but David Skara is a clearly superior defensive player. His defensive versatility and ferociousness helped this defense improve beyond what was expected.
Avoid Rebounding Issues:
A season ago, Clemson was a decent offensive rebounding team, but ranked a paltry 295th in defensive rebounding percentage. Losing both starters off the front line would seem to spell disaster, but in fact things improved. While the offensive rebounding wasn’t as strong without Sidy Djitte, who was #1 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (some of which was him grabbing his own misses), the defensive rebounding was far better.
This was a total team effort. Reed’s defensive rebounding percentage (DR%) went up, while Holmes minutes went to DeVoe, who was stronger on the glass. Shockingly, Donte Grantham - who we worried was too thin to play at PF - posted a higher DR% in 17-18 than Blossomgame had the year before. Lastly, we see Eli Thomas’s contributions making a huge impact, as he exceeded Djitte’s DR% from 16-17.
We were concerned about the lack of depth at PG and C. We saw that get exposed at times. Fortunately, those times were seldom. Clemson’s offense was stagnant as they went 0-2 while Shelton Mitchell was out with a concussion. Losing Ty Hudson via transfer during the offseason ending up likely costing Clemson a win. Besides that, both Mitchell and Thomas stayed healthy and while losing Grantham hurt, the Tigers had decent depth at PF as Simms and Skara filled in admirably.
Other Reasons They Exceeded Expectations
In addition to hitting on those keys discussed above, the Tigers benefited from major offensive progression from Donte Grantham and even more from Gabe DeVoe. Just how drastic were those improvements? Huge! Donte Grantham shot approximately the same number of threes and two-pointers in 2017 and didn’t shoot either at a particularly great percentage. At PF this year, he took nearly twice as many two-pointers as three pointers and saw his percentages improve in both categories. His offensive Rating (ORtg) went from a decent 101.4 to an outstanding 123.0.
Gabe DeVoe shot 74 more three-pointers and improved his percentage - a mark of a skills improvement. His ORtg jumped from 97.1 to 110.3.
Lastly is culture. This is hardest to comment on, but it sounds like this team was particularly tight and enjoyed playing together, which can never be taken for granted.
What it all means
Clemson won 25 games for just the second time in school history. They did it while overcoming a major injury to a star player. This team stacks up favorably against some of the best in school history (we’ll discuss in an upcoming article).
Hopefully, this run has reminded Tiger fans how fun college basketball can be and bring fan enthusiasm back to the high levels experienced from 2007-08 to 2010-11 when the team made the tournament each year.
Look out for our upcoming articles about:
- How this team stacks up against Clemson’s best throughout history
- Where Coach Brownell stands after this exemplary season
- What this run means for the program in the long-term
- What next year should look like