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2018-19 Clemson Basketball Season Review

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The last gasp of excitement in Clemson’s basketball season evaporated when the Tigers blew a huge lead in the ACC tournament and lost to NC State, effectively ending any potential of making the NCAA tournament and sending them to NIT. After an uncomfortably close win against Wright State in the opening round, Clemson’s season came to a premature close when they lost to Wichita State in Littlejohn Coliseum in the second round of the NIT.

Whenever a season far exceeds or falls fall short of our expectations, there’s a little more to dissect. This year certainly falls into the latter category so Calvin Craft and I will break it down and understand where it went wrong and where it is headed.

To start, here is where expectations were headed into the season:

“Expecting another Sweet 16 run is unfair, but this is a top 25 team and they absolutely should be a NCAA tournament team.” - Ryan Kantor

“It’s tough to expect a team to make a run of a particular length in the NCAA Tournament because there is so much to account for with matchups, etc., but I don’t have any problem stating that this team should be expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament again.” - Jay Ingles

“...there is an aura of excitement about the Clemson program for 2018-19. While many teams were losing players to the professional ranks, Clemson was getting players back. ... With Reed and Mitchell in the backcourt and Elijah Thomas and Davis Skara in the front court, Clemson will have four fifth year seniors on the floor, the most experienced team in school history.” - Tim Bourret (Orange: The Experience Magazine)

To use Tim Bourret’s words, there was an “aura of excitement.” With so much veteran talent returning, it was merited. According to KenPom, they lost seven games to teams worse than them while only winning one over a team better than them (VT). That tells me two things: (1) KenPom severely overrated Clemson, (2) The Tigers severely underachieved. We’ll explore several reasons that may help explain the latter.


Past Four Seasons

Wins of 3 points or fewer (or OT) Losses of 3 points or fewer (or OT) Final KenPom Ranking Outcome
Wins of 3 points or fewer (or OT) Losses of 3 points or fewer (or OT) Final KenPom Ranking Outcome
1 4 45 17-14; No postseason invitation
2 6 45 17-16; First round NIT loss (vs. Oakland)
3 3 14 25-10; Sweet 16 loss (vs. Kansas)
2 6 35 20-14; Second round NIT loss (vs. Wichita St.)
8 19 35 (AVG)

Two years ago, every call and every bounce seemingly went against Clemson. We couldn’t catch a break. The season ended with a letdown at home in the NIT and we chalked up the failed season to bad luck.

Here we are again looking at six losses by 3 points (or OT) or less once again. Now it is a pattern. The Tigers are 8-19 in these close games over the past four years. There certainly can be an unlucky season. It is however not intellectually honest to chalk up a bad record across 27 close games to luck. Bad luck isn’t the answer.

Injuries, specifically the chronic knee issue for Mitchell, the early injury that Eli Thomas had to work through, and the problems that kept Malik William out for the entire season, were out of the staff’s control. All of these had an effect on conditioning early in the season, chemistry throughout the season, and the ability to have quality practices which require competitive depth.

Shelton Mitchell’s injury was the toughest for the team to overcome. In addition to missing the NIT, he was limited in his production throughout the year. We didn’t understand what was quite wrong, but it was obvious from the eye test that he regressed. The stats bear it out as well:

Shelton Mitchell:

2017-18: .399 FG%, .368 3P%, 12.2 ppg, 3.2 apg, 2.0 topg

2018-19: .379 FG%, .324 3P%, 11.5 ppg, 3.0 apg 2.3 topg

When you lose key seniors like DeVoe and Grantham, you generally need either impact freshmen to join or your returning veterans to take strides. While Skara and Eli took major strides and Reed was able to pick up some of the scoring slack DeVoe left behind, Mitchell’s regression was too much to overcome. The incoming freshman didn’t help the cause either.

Freshmen/Transfer contribution: This was an unabashed failure. Javan White was nowhere near the factor that Mark Donnal was the previous season as a backup for Eli Thomas and has recently declared he will transfer out. Neither John Newman III nor Hunter Tyson was able to contribute on a consistent basis. Each showed flashes of promise, but their combined efforts didn’t come close to replacing the departed contributions of Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham. Trey Jemison has a plus body but was clearly too far behind skill wise to be a factor in his freshman campaign. It was another black eye to a bleak recruiting record for Brownell during his Clemson career which has produced little to no immediate impact freshmen.

The return of Skara was was a very GOOD luck situation that hasn’t been talked about enough. Imagine this season without Skara’s services and it is hard to think the team would have even made the NIT. Skara’s heavy minutes are a big indication that the staff didn’t come close to signing anyone ready to replace what he brought to the table.

Poor Three-Point Shooting

Losing Gabe “Bobby Buckets” DeVoe was always going to be tough, but it doesn’t explain Clemson’s 3.8 percentage-point drop in three-point percentage. It was Clemson’s worst three-point shooting team since the 2014-15 squad that went 16-15 and lost to Winthrop. Here are the four teams since that one:

2015-16: 35.1%

2016-17: 35.7%

2017-18: 36.6%

2018-19: 32.8%

The Tigers had the 14th most efficient defense and the 106th most efficient offense. Their 3P% was 106th and the proportion of their points that came from three-pointers was 279th. If the Tigers had made more three-pointers the offense would have looked much different and a competent offense paired with the 14th best defense can be a very successful recipe.

Simms and Skara improved, but both Mitchell and Reed made fewer three-pointers despite needing to make up for the 86 DeVoe made. Take a look at the total three-point shots made by these key shooters over the past two seasons:

Three-Point Shots Made

Player 2017-18 2018-19
Player 2017-18 2018-19
Shelton Mitchell 50 48
Marquise Reed 67 48
Aamir Simms 14 40
David Skara 5 33
Donte Grantham 26 N/A
Gabe DeVoe 86 N/A

Reed and Shelton needed to increase their percentages and raw totals to make up for the loses, but they regressed. What’s more troubling is that recruits targeted to be shooters, like the departed A.J. Oliver and current freshman Hunter Tyson, haven’t delivered. DeVoe and Grantham emerged as terrific outside shooters late in their careers, but does Brownell have the time to wait for Tyson, Newman, or Trapp to hopefully emerge as well? The big recruiting disappointments of Zion Williamson and Josiah James are looming large and Brownell is going to desperately need an incoming freshman to buck the norm and be a real impact player unless he can entice a top transfer to come in who can play at a high level right away.

It wasn’t just one thing, but rather the combination of injuries, veterans regressing, and incoming freshmen and transfers not panning out in year one. Next year, we’ll likely supplement the returning players and three incoming freshman with at least one graduate transfer. Hopefully that can help next year’s team be competitive in the ACC, but make no mistake, we missed an opportunity this season with a veteran roster. We’ll be back with more basketball coverage following Coach Brownell’s season wrap-up press conference. Until then, enjoy the Spring Game and a surprisingly likeable Final Four that has two football schools making their first Final Four appearances, a gutsy Spartan team that plays great team basketball, and a Virginia squad on a redemption mission.