When: Tuesday 7pm
TV: ESPN U
Clemson tips off Brad Brownell’s 11th season on Tuesday with an ACC game, which is really strange for basketball but indicative of the changes brought about by the new 20 game conference slate. Coach Brownell is now the longest tenured coach in Clemson men’s basketball history, breaking the tie with Cliff Ellis and Banks McFadden. We’ve well documented the sometimes tenuous relationship between the fans and Brownell during these last three or four seasons, but it might be better to break his tenure into pre-Littlejohn upgrade and post-Littlejohn upgrade. Since the new Littlejohn opened for the 2016-17 season, Clemson has had two NIT and one NCAA tournament appearance after having just one of each from 2010 to 2016. However, many Tiger fans who follow basketball were disgruntled when a preseason top 25 squad failed to make the NCAA tournament last season. Coach Brownell knows he is still fighting for respect and full acceptance as the head coach at Clemson, and for his popularity to approach the levels enjoyed by Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell, he needs to not let this season be the step back that many outsiders have projected.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech Hokies got their coach Buzz Williams poached by Texas A&M after a 26-9 season and appearance in the Sweet 16. VT went and hired long time Wofford coach Mike Young, but there are very little recognizable features to this year’s Hokies compared to last year’s. Frequent readers of this site will know I’m a Wofford graduate and am a fan of Coach Young. He did an unbelievable job at Wofford, and quite frankly boasts some things on his resume that any Clemson coach would envy, most notably a win in Chapel Hill over UNC. He’s got an uphill battle facing him in year 1 at VT, which should almost be treated as a year 0 when you look at the roster turnover. While Clemson is replacing a lot of production from last year as well, the Tigers are much more of a known commodity thanks to the World University Games over the summer.
Virginia Tech returns just 7 players from last year’s roster, and their returning leading scorer, Isiah Wilkins, averaged just 4.7 points per game. In fact, VT is returning just 13.3 points per game from last season. The Tiger staff will truly be flying blind in their preparation for this one, but this is a game the Tigers have to win if this season is going to have a chance to exceed expectations.
What we know about Clemson is that Aamir Simms is the leader and most important player on the roster. Simms is the most veteran Tiger (entering his third year in the program) and is the leading returning scorer (8.1 ppg) and rebounder (4.6 rpg) from a year ago. Simms really needed to make a big jump if this season was going to be anything notable, and it certainly appeared over the summer and through the exhibition game that has occurred. Simms has vastly improved as a rebounder and showed a lot more scoring ability around the rim than in previous years. With Elijah Thomas graduated, Simms is now playing the 5 spot where he has a much better matchup advantage than from the 4. Though Simms is not an old school 5, he has enough strength to body up defensively and superior inside/outside skills to most 5 men at this level. Simms seems poised to have a breakout season where he can realistically average a double/double. He’s also not nearly as prone to foul trouble as Thomas was, mostly because he isn’t the shot blocker that Thomas was.
The other summer surprise for me was wing John Newman III. The athletic sophomore out of Greensboro Day had a largely underwhelming freshman season. He was a strong perimeter defender but struggled to make any kind of consistent impact offensively. His upside was evident in flashes, most notably when he dunked on U of SC rim protector Chris Silva. Newman was terrific in Italy on both ends of the floor and looks prepared to deliver double figure scoring this season. Clemson doesn’t have a 20+ ppg type of scorer on the roster, so it needs to find four to five guys who can average between 10-15 a game. Simms and Newman should easily be two of those four or five.
The next guy Clemson fans can expect some scoring out of is Alabama graduate transfer Tevin Mack. Mack is a former top 100 recruit and a highly athletic wing who can play both the 3 and 4 positions. Mack’s career has been up and down, with some games over 20 points mixed with some duds. This was the case in Italy also, so we will see if he can find the consistency in his offense in his final year of college basketball. At worst, he will give the team a guy who will jump up and score in bunches in some games here and there. The good news in Italy was the team was able to pick up for him on the off nights and keep winning. Mack should realistically average at least 10 ppg, with a chance of pushing 17 if he gets consistent. If he gets to 17ppg, chances are strong that this Tiger team will exceed expectations and challenge for 20 wins in the regular season. Anything between 12-15 ppg would be a very welcome sight this season.
The biggest question mark for this year’s team is at point guard. Projected starter Clyde Trapp is out until at least January with an ACL injury, and transfer Nick Honor is still waiting to hear from the NCAA about being able to play right away. That leaves true freshman Al-Amir Dawes as the only pure point guard heading into this first game. The team will probably have to use graduate Curran Scott, John Newman, and perhaps freshman Chase Hunter as stop gap 1’s until Trapp returns or Honor is cleared to play. Dawes will be thrust into the action like no Brownell freshman guard has been before.
Khavon Moore getting cleared to play was a huge boost to this year’s team. Moore offers depth at the 3 and 4 spots behind Mack and Hunter Tyson, and allows Brownell to work a three man rotation at those two spots until Johnathan Baehre is cleared to return off his ACL injury in December. Moore has not yet shown great scoring ability as he rounds back into shape from an injury marred freshman season at Texas Tech, but his length and athleticism around the rim and in the open floor have been clearly evident from Italy and in the exhibition game with Anderson. Moore is a quality rebounder and capable defender who will provide much needed depth, especially on days where Tevin Mack might be having an off night.
I presume that big Trey Jemison will be Simms’s backup at the 5 and will play alongside Simms and Baehre (when he returns) if Brownell wants to go to a big lineup. Jemison came in as a project, but he showed improvement in Italy and got to play a lot more there than he did last year. He will be needed to provide 7-10 minutes a game, especially during the time Baehre is out.
The only for sure starters right now would be Newman, Simms, and Mack. Dawes will likely start at the point, and the last spot could be Scott, Hunter, or even Tyson. As I mentioned in the season preview article, the Tigers should feature a much deeper rotation this year vs. last year. It will easily be 8 guys early on, and if Honor is cleared, that number will jump to 9. Once Baehre and Trapp come back, the team could realistically have 11 guys who could give you 10 minutes or more in a game. We haven’t seen that since the days of Oliver Purnell and his full court pressing style.
Last year’s team relied much too heavily on Marcquise Reed for perimeter scoring and Elijah Thomas for points in the paint. This year’s team should (on paper) be able to offer more options to find points, more diversity on defense, and better bench production. The flip side is there is nobody (yet) who can go get 30 like Reed could or take a game over down the stretch. With all the tightly contested games Clemson always seems to find itself in, that question will need to be answered in hopes of avoiding the biggest stat haunting the Brownell era at Clemson: games decided by two possessions or less. The one year on the plus side in that category was the sweet 16 run two years ago.
KenPom actually has VT rated ahead of Clemson, which is a little strange to me given the turnover the Hokies are dealing with, but projects a 68-67 win for Clemson. I’ll be a little more bold and pick the Tigers to win going away 71-57. I think Coach Young will do good things at VT, but it will take a little time. I even heard Buzz Williams apologized to him for what was left in the cupboard after the coaching change.