I know, it’s still football season. Nevertheless, basketball is also upon us and we at STS will do our due diligence to give you coverage of the men’s basketball team. Last year ended with a disheartening thud, as the senior-laden Tigers fell at home to Wichita State in the NIT second round, just a year after being one of the top three seasons in the history of Clemson basketball.
I felt that this coming season was going to be ugly, especially when the staff failed to secure 5-star Josiah James out of Charleston’s Porter-Gaud High. Then, projected starters Jonathan Baehre and Clyde Trapp both went down with ACL injuries before the team departed for the World University Games. The prognosis dimmed further.
On the bright side, Coach Brownell went out and got two highly-rated transfers in Tevin Mack (via Alabama), and Khavon Moore (via Texas Tech). He also added Nick Honor (via Fordham) and Curran Scott (via Tulsa), though as of this writing, Honor doesn’t appear to be eligible for this season. The staff may have found a real jewel in the super athletic Chase Hunter, but it remains to be seen if Hunter or Al-Amir Dawes will become instant impact freshmen like a Greg Buckner, Terrell McIntyre, or Cliff Hammonds. The Brownell era has seen little impact from freshmen, with the best season coming from Donte Grantham.
Still, I was mighty skeptical of what this season might bring until the Tigers went and won the gold medal in the World University Games in Italy over the summer. While this isn’t the highest level tournament around, I’ll point out that the 2017 Purdue team that would go on to win 28 games and make the sweet 16 failed to win the gold in the same tournament. The most encouraging thing about the tournament was seeing the growth of lone returning starter Aamir Simms and 6th man John Newman, who both played significantly above the level they showed during the previous season. Simms is the unquestioned leader of the program and has taken that job by the horns while becoming a double-double machine. Perhaps the biggest flaw of last year’s team was the leadership void created from the departures of Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham, and it likely was a factor in the hard luck close losses last year’s team endured vs. the much more clutch play from the previous season. The injury situations with Eli Thomas and David Skara, and most notably Shelton Mitchell, certainly didn’t help either.
Another underrated factor of this year’s team is its depth, even if Nick Honor is not able to play. The team should be getting Baehre and Trapp back as the season goes on, but even without them, we should see a deeper rotation than we saw last year when it was barely 7 in the rotation. Khavon Moore getting a waiver to play immediately is a huge boost as he offers another athletic 3-4 hybrid who can rotate with Mack and Hunter Tyson. The only real issue is how Brownell will handle the point guard situation until Trapp returns if Honor can’t play. It will be a lot on the plate of true freshman Dawes, but I certainly liked the moxie I saw out of him this summer in Italy.
Unlike last year, this team will be very under the radar coming into the season. The media picked Clemson to finish 11th in the league, and KenPom currently projects a 13-16 season and 7-13 in the ACC. Looking at Clemson’s schedule, I broke things down into three tiers using KenPom’s preseason rankings. Tier 1 are teams ranked 1-39, Tier 2 are teams ranked 40-120, and Tier 3 are teams ranked 121 or worse. Not including the second game out in Las Vegas, the Tigers will have 9 Tier 1 games, 15 Tier 2 games, and 5 Tier 3 games. My goal for the team is usually to win 100% of Tier 3, 80% of Tier 2, and 30% of Tier 1 games. If that happened, the Tigers would be right around 19 wins before the ACC tournament and firmly in position to make the NCAA field. Last year’s team did well in Tiers 2 and 3, but really struggled in Tier 1 (just 1 win) and that ultimately doomed the team to the NIT.
Now, for 19 wins to happen, this team has to shoot the 3 much better than it did last year. There have been signs that Hunter Tyson is coming around to shooting it like the staff thought he could when they signed him. Guys like Mack, Scott, and Dawes are streaky but can both get hot enough to hit 2-4 threes in a game here and there. Alex Hemenway was signed as a 3-point specialist, and we will see if he can be a factor off the bench in that role. Aamir Simms did a lot of pick and pop 3-point shooting in Italy, with mixed results, but it was obvious to me that is part of the plan for him going forward offensively. Newman and Hunter are the athletic slashers who might hit a three from time to time but will mostly live inside the arch.
It will be interesting to see what effect the new 3-point line has on college basketball this season. The Tigers were only 256th in three-pointer shot attempts as a proportion of overall field goal attempts. That is to say, it wasn’t a big part of the offense last year. They were only 248th in 3P% so it was for good reason. Making 3-point shots more challenging may help Clemson, relatively speaking, since they shoot fewer of them than most of their opponents.
The 20-game ACC schedule presents its own challenges, but Clemson’s win over cupcakes hardly helped their resume in the past and one of those ACC opponents replaced the usual SEC opponent that wasn’t South Carolina. Last year that was Mississippi State, who they lost to anyway.
In the Tigers’ exhibition game against Anderson, the Tigers started:
- Aamir Simms
- Tevin Mack
- John Newman III
- Chase Hunter
- Al-Amir Dawes
That’s an interesting small ball lineup and it may push the Tigers to play a little more up-tempo. The depth was on display too as 5 bench players saw 12+ minutes in the exhibition. Of course, the Tigers won 75-48 so its hard to judge how minutes will be allocated against Virginia Tech based on this game. Nevertheless, we should see a lot of versatile “positionless” lineups, new strategies with the new international 3-point line, and a lot of new faces making an impact.
While expectations are much lower than last year, outcomes may be similar. The Tigers probably won’t make the NCAA tournament this year, but with the ACC being a bit down, they have a good shot to grow together as a team full of fresh faces and finish above the media’s 11th place pick and return to the NIT. A springboard to next year would make for a fun season.