Welcome Back to Littlejohn
So, you contentedly turned off the Tigers’ beatdown of an overmatched Virginia football team and thought, now what? No more football until December 28th’s Fiesta Bowl in Arizona. The soccer teams have both finished their impressive seasons with disappointing losses. Clemson Baseball and season one of Softball don’t start until February. What other Clemson sports can you watch? The answer, obviously, is our Clemson Tigers basketball teams. But what exactly should one expect while watching the men’s team in particular? Will this year’s team live up to the media’s expectations and finish 11th in the ACC? Will they outperform last year’s NIT loss at home to Wichita State? Let’s take a look together at the team, what sort of product they’ll bring to the court and how the season might shape up.
Brad Brownell’s crew are young and have not played much together. They are 328th of 353 in minutes continuity from last season - meaning very few of the players who contributed significantly for us last year are playing for us this year - and have three players in the regular rotation so far with two plus years of experience at the D-1 level. That’s not enough… Many of our players are inexperienced or flawed in one way or another, but this team has some interesting pieces. The biggest shortfall comes at the top of the rotation. When Aamir Simms and Tevin Mack are your two best players, the ceiling is low.
But now the good news. This team is feisty and is deeper and more talented at the 5-12 rotation spots than any Clemson team in recent memory. Unfortunately, they’ve been bitten badly by the injury bug so far this season, but I expect things will get better on that front. Junior transfer big man Jonathan Baehre made his debut against Florida State on Sunday after an 18 month stint with the Tigers without a second of play while recovering from an ACL tear and serving his year out as a non grad transfer. Backup point guard and major contributor from last year’s team, Clyde Trapp, will be returning some time in early to mid January after his own ACL tear. Two freshmen with promising starts to the season, Chase Hunter and Alex Hemenway, will be returning eventually from their own lower leg injuries. Once the whole team is healthy, there are fully twelve players who could give a contribution on any night to help the team.
Style of Play
How does a team overcome a lack of top talent and familiarity while playing a very tough schedule in the NCAA and the ACC specifically? They do something different. Brad Brownell’s team looks different from years past in a few ways. First, they’re playing faster than any Brownell team has ever played. They’re up to 68 possessions per game, nearly two higher than any previous team under Brad Brownell’s supervision. That is still only good for 228th in the NCAA, but it’s also without a leading guard in Trapp who loves to push the pace. They’re also shooting more 3-pointers than any other Clemson team under Brownell has before. This iteration of the Tigers is shooting the 48th most threes as a percentage of all shots in college basketball at 44.2%. They’ve done a decent shot of hitting them as well at 34.1% (127th). Probably the most noticeable difference in this team’s approach from previous versions is that the coaching staff has decided to throw out a lot more 2-3 zone and trapping presses than in previous seasons. Early on in the year, this worked well to generate turnovers and has forced 18+ turnovers in six of nine games so far, winning five of the six including a fantastic comeback to win in overtime against a talented TCU squad.
Defensively, Clemson has been fairly good so far this year, ranking 66th in Defensive Efficiency. The weakest area has been from three, where 42.1% of our opponents points have come from 3-point range, the 7th worst percentage in the country. Teams have also been shooting over 35% from three against the Tigers, ranking in the bottom third of college basketball. Clyde Trapp’s return should help with that. His length and athleticism on the perimeter will make three pointers harder to take and make for opposing offenses and allow other defenders to stick closer to their own men, making the setup paces tougher as well. The Tigers have also been allowing teams to get to the line, A LOT. They’re 271st in Free throw attempt rate and teams have hit at a very high 75% of those attempts (318th in the country). Jonathan Baehre’s return should help, if only to split time at center with Trey Jemison who has been a fouling machine in the early going and to allow Aamir Simms more time on quicker forwards instead of much taller centers. Overall, this team has the potential to be as strong as many past Brownell defenses if they can make a few adjustments and get some more able bodies on the floor.
On Offense, the Tigers have been lacking a clear creator and ball handler. Aamir Simms has looked the part in stretches, but if a guard is switched onto him defensively, he has trouble capitalizing and often attempts to drive past them, turning the ball over frequently. Al-Amir Dawes has an assist rate of nearly 20% (that’s good!), but he has a turnover rate of nearly 30% (that’s bad…). That imbalance isn’t surprising for a freshman point guard, but it leaves much to be desired. Clyde Trapp’s return should help there as well, both taking the pressure off of Dawes and allowing him to spot up more, where he’s done well, hitting the second most 3-pointers on the team so far this year. Trapp is also a good passer and creator which will set up his teammates for more frequent and easier looks.
So what does all this mean? How do we answer the questions at the heart of our investigation? Will this team be any good? Will they under or over perform expectations? Only time will tell, but here’s my take. The Tiger’s record this season may be ugly. So far this year, they’ve managed a 5-4 record (0-2 ACC) with one quality win against TCU, two close losses to decent teams and two blowouts by better squads. We should see wins in each of their remaining non-conference games, starting with South Carolina on Sunday bringing their non-conference record to 8-2. Respectable, but not overly impressive. Conference play will be the true test of this team and their efforts to coalesce into something respectable. They’re currently projected to finish ACC play at 7-13. I’d guess they end up with 8 wins, and maybe 9 or 10 if they steal a couple against the upper echelon of the league. That would put them around the middle of the pack in the ACC and in the conversation for the NIT or potentially the NCAA tournament depending on the other teams around the bubble. If they get to that point, this will be one of Brad Brownell’s finer performances as a coach and would make the decision to retain him look like a good one (surprisingly). This year’s team was not meant to be great. It is a rebuilding year after the departure of four starters and a ton of other contributors. Despite that, Brownell and company have the potential to turn this into a fun and competitive season. Give them a shot and they may just surprise you by making it.