Clemson picked up a huge win when they jumped out ahead of Pittsburgh and hung on for a 82-69 win. The Tigers now face a winnable stretch of games and their greatest hope of getting back in the mix for an NCAA tournament bid. To help us look at several aspects of the season from a fresh perspective, we reached out to the basketball expert from the Clemson Pawcast, Sam Ring. He was kind enough to join us for this article. Thank you to Sam! Please consider following the Pawcast on Twitter (here).
STS: Even after Clemson’s insane 14-27 three-point shooting performance against Pitt boosted their team three-point percentage by more than two percentage-points, they’re still significantly behind last year’s pace. Overall, the offense has dropped from 44th to 60th in terms of efficiency. Is it simply a matter of them not hitting three-pointers like they did a year ago, or is it more complicated than that?
Sam: Three-point percentage is a piece of the drop in efficiency, but it’s definitely not everything. Our turnover rate so far this season is well into the bottom half in the country (267th of 353) after being right around the top 100 in turnover percentage last year. Stylistically we’ve also seen some changes this season on offense. Partially due to the lull in three-point percentage, we’re taking far fewer threes than we did last year. The team is hitting more than two fewer three-pointers per game than last season.
We’re also creating fewer assists than last season. This is largely due to Reed and Mitchell liking to create their own mid-range shots off the dribble and having fewer players to kick out to from the paint who can reliably hit shots. Overall, the scheme is similar, but the offense has shifted to reflect the players who get the most touches (Eli, Marcquise, Shelton). This leads us to an ineffective outside game and a pretty strong game inside the restricted zone and midrange.
STS: In ACC play, Shelton Mitchell got off to a rough 2-19 shooting start from behind the arc before his 4-4 night against Pittsburgh. His assists are also slightly down while his turnovers are slightly up from last season. Are you reading anything into these struggles besides a classic cold streak? How much do you factor Tuesday’s hot first half into your thoughts moving forward?
Sam: Tuesday’s game against Pittsburgh was an encouraging sign for Shelton, but not just because he had a hot night shooting the three. He got back to his recent good play distributing the ball, ending the night with 5 assists. In his last 4 games he’s had 18 assists and that includes his game against NC State where he got benched late and ended the night with 0.
I’d expect his three-point shooting to come back closer to his career average of approximately 35% over the course of the year, but the thing to look for from Shelton is a more decisive approach and some aggression in the open floor. He operates best at full speed when others are on their heels. He did a lot of that against Pitt and hopefully he carries that with him moving forward.
STS: Clemson has struggled to defend the three-pointer all season, ranking 312th in three-point percentage allowed. Is this a schematic, skill, or effort issue? Is it something that can be fixed mid-season?
Sam: I think the biggest issue with our three-point defense this season has been schematic. We like to pack the paint and force people to shoot over us, but we don’t adjust after a player has hit one or two over outstretched hands. We’ve been slightly better in ACC play, giving up a 35.8% three-point percentage vs. a 37.3% for the entire season. This stems from some game planning against players we’ve seen before and more aggressive approach denying the ball to certain shooters and pressing up on them when we know they can hurt us from outside. Overall, the issue is something that can be fixed in the middle of a season, but it will rely heavily on the coaching staff to emphasize extending the defense beyond the three-point line. At the least there needs to be a focus on better perimeter defense for the hot or skilled three-point shooters on opposing teams.
STS: Following the win over Pittsburgh, Clemson improved to 2-5 in the ACC. It’s not where you want to be, but they don’t play Duke or Virginia again and have a generally favorable schedule ahead.
Do you think they can finish 7-4 to reach .500? If so, is that enough for an NCAA tournament bid, or does that record have to include at least one marquee win (e.g., Virginia Tech, UNC, etc.)?
Sam: 2-5 is about what you’d expect – maybe the win against NC State that we squandered – given the brutal schedule we had to start the ACC. In our remaining games we play 6 games against teams ranked lower than us in KenPom and Syracuse (who’s within about 5 of us) at home. Those are all very winnable games. I’d expect us to drop at least 1 – most likely one of the road games, but I also think we could pick up a win in one of our games against VT, Louisville, FSU or UNC. FSU at home is the most likely candidate, but I could see others falling our way as well. So, I think 7-4 is still possible, but we’ll need to play like we did for 90% of the NC State game and most of Pitt instead of the last few minutes of both those games. If we end ACC play at 9-9 and 19-12 overall we’ll need some marquee wins to get into the tournament. Those could come during the ACC regular season or in the ACC tournament, but we’ll need at least 2 good ones in the next few weeks. At this point in the season we have 0 wins to hang our hats on (NC State… so close).
STS: Following a Sweet 16 run, Coach Brownell is not on the hot seat, yet after every heart breaking loss the issue seems to get re-litigated among fans. I would dismiss it out of hand, but there’s one aspect to the argument that I think holds some weight and is worth discussing – recruiting. Do you feel Clemson’s recruiting is at a sufficient level? Which recruits in the pipeline or freshmen on campus excite you? Do you think recruiting will pick-up under Brownell or is what we should expect moving forward?
Sam: The answer to this question depends on what you consider to be the goal of Clemson Basketball. Is it sufficient to win or compete for ACC or National Championships? No. Is it sufficient to be competitive in the ACC and make the tournament most years going forward? Yes, I think it is.
Our freshmen and sophomores all have potential to be solid contributors. I’ve spoken about Aamir Simms on the podcast a number of times and I feel like he’s got all the physical tools, he just hasn’t figured the game out mentally to the point we need. That’s something that takes time and I’m still optimistic he’ll make that leap. The current freshmen (Newman, Tyson & Jemison) have all shown flashes. Specifically, John Newman III has looked good and is contributing now. Our incoming freshman class currently has three commits – all guards around the same size as Mitchell and Reed. We have a couple other guys we’re looking at, but we’ll either need a solid freshman big or for Jemison or Jonathan Baehre (currently redshirting following transfer from UNC Asheville) to make a big contribution when Eli leaves after the season. The thing that Brownell has done tremendously well – better than his recruiting of high schoolers – is his recruitment of transfers. Mitchell, Reed, Thomas, Skara and White (four of our starters and one bench player in the regular rotation) were transfers. If he can continue to fill gaps with guys graduating from other schools or looking for a new program, we’ll continue to be competitive. I have seen our recruiting improve the last couple seasons, but I wouldn’t expect any consistent major improvements in that regard. Being in the conversation with recruits like Zion and hitting on one every few years is what I would look for.
STS: When you’re not bringing in five-star talent, you look for player development. With that in mind, which returning player from last season has shown the most progress from a year ago and where have you seen it most with them?
Sam: Player development is so important for Clemson’s continued success. If we can take three star or four-star talents and turn them into four and five-star level players the recruiting can take a back seat and be less important. Our returners this year are Reed, Thomas, Mitchell, Simms, Trapp, and Skara. I think Eli, Simms, and Trapp have all shown some good improvements in parts of their games, but I have to say David Skara looks like the most improved player on the roster.
After deciding against going pro in his home country and returning to Clemson, the Croatian sensation has looked much improved across the board. He’s scoring more points (7.8 from 3.3), getting more rebounds (4.3 from 2.8), assisting more (1.5 from 0.4), and he’s doing all of it with better efficiency. His three-point shooting has been stellar at over 40% on a fairly high volume. That has helped his effective FG% and true FG% go up about 12 percentage-points each from last season. He’s got a higher rebound rate (the % of rebounds he gets of the ones available while he’s on the floor), higher assist rate and lower turnover rate. But most importantly, he’s doing all of this while still being a swiss army knife defender. He picks up the best player on the other team most nights and holds them to some of their least efficient outings while fouling less than he did last year as well. He’s the player that most impacts the flow of games for us this year by hitting threes, making big stops and helping keep the defense focused. We’d be much worse off without him.
STS: Next up, Clemson gets Wake Forest before going to Georgia Tech and then returning home to host a highly ranked Virginia Tech team. After that, they have a winnable road game at Miami. What do you expect from Clemson in these next five games and what do they need in this stretch to get back on track for an NCAA tournament appearance?
Sam: The next 5 games will really tell us how the rest of the season will go. The loss to NC State may have been a galvanizing moment for the season, or maybe the strong showing against Pitt was just be a one-off blowout after a disappointing loss. Very winnable games against Wake, GT and Miami paired with two tough challenges in Virginia Tech and Louisville will tell us if this team wants to make the tournament and is prepared to make a strong run. I am hopeful that we will win 4 of 5. The obvious answer there is that we win the ones we’re supposed to and lose to Virginia Tech and Louisville, but I would keep an eye on the Georgia Tech or Miami games on the road as a potential pitfall for us. The Louisville game would be tough on the road. We’ve been much worse on the road this year than we have at home, especially in the ACC with zero road wins so far. Against Virginia Tech at home if we can slow down their outside shooting (2nd best in the country) we stand a chance at sneaking out a victory. If we come out of the next 5 games with 2 wins or fewer, this season is done. If we get 3, we still have ground to make up, but depending on which 3 it could be a positive. If we’re able to win 4 or an incredibly unlikely 5, this team is on its way and is probably headed to the tournament barring a major collapse.
STS: A big thank you to Sam Ring for joining us and sharing his basketball knowledge. If you haven’t listened to the Clemson Pawcast before, I highly recommend it. I’m a consistent listener because they create quality interesting content that maintains a level of objectivity while being heavily Clemson-focused. If you haven’t listened before, they’re available on podcast apps and you can listen to their latest episode below.