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Clemson Basketball: A Program In Search of an Identity

Brad Brownell is coming off a bitterly disappointing season, how can he turn it around?

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports


Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way.

Brad Brownell is coming back next year. That’s the truth of the situation.

Should he be back?

I have mixed feelings, and I know many of you have strong feelings on the subject, but he’s back.

I have no interest in writing naval gazing articles bemoaning the fate of Clemson basketball or articles that rage against the inevitable.

I’m more interested in how Brad Brownell can turn this thing around, because even if you don’t think it’s possible, it is 100% in Clemson’s best interest for Brad to turn things around.

Personally, I don’t think it’s impossible, but improbable at this point. Some serious momentum has been squandered and that’s a tough thing to recapture for a program like Clemson’s.

It’s the off-season, for everything except baseball, and I don’t write about baseball, so consider this my opening salvo on turning Clemson around.

Consider this an article series. I’ll be back with more once I return from the Masters.

Establish an Identity Within the Motion Offense

The motion offense has made a comeback this year. It never left, but teams running what some consider an “antiquated” offense have been wildly successful this season.

Purdue and Matt Painter rode their guard-oriented motion to a share of the Big-10 title and an electric Elite 8 run with only one player (and that player isn’t Carsen Edwards) on their roster rated in the top 100 coming out of high school.

Jay Wright won the Big East with a depleted roster coming off two National Championships in the last 4 years (granted he had a ton of talent on his Championship teams).

Texas Tech won a share of the Big 12 and will be appearing in the Final 4 with Chris Beard’s version of Bob Knight’s motion offense. Only one player rated in the top 100 out of high school has contributed to this run.

Kansas State and Bruce Webber won a share of the Big-12 title without a single player rated in the top 100 out of high school, only to have their season derailed by Dean Wade’s (their best player) chronically injured foot.

My problem with Clemson’s motion offense is Brownell hasn’t been able to establish an identity with the offense.

Does Clemson want to play more of an up tempo, wide open version of the motion like Purdue and Villanova or does Clemson want to run a more buttoned up, defensive-minded version of the motion offense like Texas Tech and Kansas State?

Right now I feel like Brownell is splitting the difference, and subsequently, Clemson doesn’t have an identity other than “generic motion team.”

If Brad wants to be a wide open motion team like Purdue; he needs to recruit to that template.

If Brad wants to be a defensive, slow down motion team like Texas Tech; he needs to recruit to that template.

I’m getting ahead of myself however. It’s a long off season, today I’ll just take a look at a couple things Purdue does in their wide open spread and talk a little about what Clemson can do to mimic it.


This one is a lay-up (or three-pointer) for me because I also cover Purdue.

Matt Painter has broken out of the “play hard” and “win ugly” motion offense in recent years, and has managed it in a couple different ways. The nice thing about the motion offense is it can be rearranged to fit talent.

When Purdue had Issac Haas and Biggie Swannigan in the post, they ran a post-heavy motion that looked to isolate their big men on the block and surround them with shooters. Double the post and you’re giving up a 3 to one of Purdue’s 4 sharp shooters surrounding the 3 point arc. Don’t double and you’re going to give up and 1’s and get into foul trouble.

This year, Purdue was short on true post players, and heavy on shooting guards. Subsequently, Painter changed the offense. He pulled the more mobile center out of the post, opened up driving lanes and used their big men to set devastating screens. Throw in the magic of Carsen Edwards, and you had one of the most exciting (if they were on) offenses in the nation.

One thing the post heavy and guard heavy offense had in common was shooters spreading the floor.

This year, Purdue had three shooters on the floor at all times. Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards are guys that can come off screens and knock down three-pointers. Grady Eifert was a crazy efficient stretch 4 who stood in the corner and knocked down open three-pointers when his feet were set.

Purdue had the following “shooters” on the roster this year:


SG - Carsen Edwards: 135/380 - 36%

SF - Ryan Cline: 111/266 - 42%

PF - Grady Eifert: 35/81 - 43%

Off The Bench

SG - Sasha Stefanovich: 25/61 - 41%

PF - Aaron Wheeler: 31/85 - 36%

Compare this to Clemson


PG - Shelton Mitchell: 48/148 - 32%

SG - Marcquise Reed: 48/135 - 36%

SF - David Skara: 33/91 - 36%

PF - Aamir Simms: 40/121 - 33%

Off the Bench

PG/SG/SF - Clyde Trapp: 26/85 - 31%

What having shooters meant for Purdue

Purdue creates a ton of space with their offense because Edwards and Cline are constantly coming off screens looking to shoot. The middle of the lane tends to be wide open for drives to the basket and slips to the rim off screens because the defenders are having to extend out and try and cover Cline and Edwards.

Grady Eifert caused even more issues for the defense because he is a deadly shooter with his feet set. If you cheat off of Grady to help on a drive or a slip, he’s going to cash in from the corner all day. It doesn’t matter that he has a incredibly slow release because when he shoots it, he tends to be wide open.

When Purdue goes to the bench they can also bring in shooters like Stefanovich and Wheeler to keep the defense spread.

There was no rest for the other team when Purdue had the ball. Shooters were constantly coming off screens looking for their shot. One miscommunication on a switch or a hedge and Purdue was putting three on the board.

Another benefit of having shooters is Purdue played against little to no zone defense all season. Even teams that normally like to run zone like Iowa (who tried it more than most against Purdue) were forced to play man to man.

Let’s take a look

This is poetry in the motion offense.

Let me break it down further.

Purdue starts with the ball on the right side. This isn’t a traditional look, but the motion offense is flexible. The entire offense is lifted. You’ve got 2 screens (red) and two cutters (blue).

Purdue (seemingly) runs two players off screens on this play.

You’ve got Carsen Edwards cutting towards the basket, and Ryan Cline coming around a screen at the top of the key.

The key on this play is that Purdue’s center (near screener) isn’t actually setting a screen on Edwards man (they do run that variation), but instead is setting a screen on the player trying go under on Cline and cheat the screen.

There are several moving parts on this play. I’ve attempted to color code the match-ups (my apologies to any color blind readers, I’m working on a better way).

The key match up to watch is Cline in yellow coming around the top of the key. His defender has a choice. He can either go around the top of the screen at the top of the key and risk getting picked off, or he can go under and try and beat Cline to the spot (as shown by my terrible arrows). He goes under, and falls into Purdue’s trap, because Purdue’s center (purple) is waiting for him to go under.

Cline (yellow) has made it all the way around the key. His defender attempted to cut under but Purdue’s center, Matt Haarms, (purple) takes a big step out and is waiting for the UT defender. Cline doesn’t need much space to get off a shot, subsequently, Haarms doesn’t have to actually set a hard screen, just get in the way enough to get Cline a step.

The UT center is now stuck in a no win situation, because Purdue runs a devastating variation of this play. It looks like the center should step out on Cline and take away the 3, but there is a huge problem.

If you’ll notice, the weak side defender is being held because Purdue’s power forward, Grady Eifert, is spotting up the weak side, and because he’s a 43% shooter the UT defender can’t leave him, taking away any back side help.

If the UT center steps to Cline, Haarms (purple) slips the screen and rolls hard to rim and Cline hits him for a dunk. If the UT center doesn’t step to the shooter, Cline gets a 3. Purdue’s ability to shoot the ball makes this play a lose/lose for the defense as long as Cline gets a step.

The UT center stays at home on Haarms because he’s afraid of the roll. Cline gets the step he needs and it’s easy money.

This is what happens when UT steps out on the shooter.



Purple: Center

Blue: SG

Light Blue: PG

Yellow: SF

Red: PF

This is a different set, but because Cline has been killing UT coming off screens, and Purdue has a power forward that can shoot, this play works. It’s the counter to a UT defensive adjustment.

Purdue inverts their offense, with Matt Haarms (purple), a skilled and mobile 7’3 center, at the top of the key and Purdue’s point guard (light blue), Nojel Eastern, a 6’6, 225 post match up nightmare, and Purdue’s shooting guard (yellow), a red hot Ryan Cline, on the baseline.

The spacing looks weird because Purdue’s SG (dark blue), an equally red hot Carsen Edwards, is setting the screen for Cline at the elbow. His man isn’t leaving him under any circumstance.

You’ll note Purdue’s power foward (red), Grady Eifert, a 43% shooter, holding the weak side help defender. That’s a key part to the play. Eifert’s ability to shoot the 3 has opened up the entire court.

The motion is simple.

The PG (light blue) leaves the post, taking any help defense away from the rim.

The PF (red) is still spotted up, holding the weak side help.

The SG (Blue) is getting in the way enough to slow the SF’s (yellow) defender.

The SF, Cline (Yellow), is running at a dead sprint to the top of the key, making his defender chase as he curls around the top of the key.

The C, Haarms (Purple), is holding the ball at the top of the key, waiting to execute a dribble hand off with Cline (Yellow). At this point Haarms is serving two roles. He’s holding the ball, and he appears to be waiting to set a screen on the defender trailing Cline after the hand off.

The UT center is once again in a bind. Does he jump out on the shooter (purple arrow) or does he stay with Haarms?

At this point, all Purdue has to do is execute and it’s a dunk. You’ll notice that the rim is wide open because Purdue has 3 knock down shooters on the court pulling the defense away from the rim.

The PF (Red) is still spotted up on the weak side holding the defense.

The SG (Blue) is flaring out to the 3 point line, because he is a great shooter, the UT defender is plastered to him and can’t give help.

The SF (Yellow) has taken the ball from the C (Purple) on the hand off, and taken 1 dribble to the top of the key.

The PG (Light Blue) is just trying to stay out of the way. He’s a 0% (that’s his actual percentage) 3 point shooter, but he has managed to pull his man to the weak side, freeing up space for the strong side roll by the center.

The C (Purple) slipped the screen instead of setting a screen on the SF’s man on the hand off and is rolling hard to the basket on the strong side.

UT’s poor center guessed wrong this time. He anticipated the screen on the hand off and jumped out to stop the 3 point attempt. His man is wide open and rolling to the rim.

You can see the dunk in the GIF, but I wanted to show you one more quick thing.

The only player on UT that can actually stop this play after the center bites up on the slip is guarding Purdue’s PG (light blue).

As soon as he sees the slip, he has to get back to the rolling center, because his man isn’t a threat to shoot. Unfortunately for UT, basketball happens at warp speed and he misses the window to stop the play.

This is how the motion offense is supposed to work with shooters on the court.


The Clemson offense can’t run these sets, or at least can’t run them like Purdue, because they don’t have enough shooters on the floor to keep the defense honest.

You can’t run either Purdue set I showed without space.

If Ryan Cline isn’t such a threat to shoot coming off screens, these sets become much easier to defend.

If Grady Eifert isn’t a knock down shooter at the 4, backside help is available.

If Carsen Edwards isn’t a threat to score every time he touches the ball, his defender is available to help.

If Clemson and Brad Brownell want to run a wide open motion offense like Purdue, they have to recruit shooters and they have to keep them from transferring.

I wasn’t as high on Clemson as most people coming into the season, because I watched 4 shooters, Devoe (40%), Donnal (47%), A.J. Oliver (36%) and Scott Spencer (recruited to be an outside shooter) walk out the door without being replaced.

My main hope was that Aamir Simms could step into the role of stretch 4 and provide Clemson with at least some spacing, and Mitchell could improve from erratic three-point shooter to consistent three-point threat. That didn’t happen and Clemson’s offense was smothered all season.

I don’t think this is news to Brad Brownell. I think the late Oliver defection hurt this team more than people want to admit because he was a guy that provided spacing. As a double whammy, because he left late, Clemson couldn’t replace him with a grad transfer shooter.

The lack of shooting on last years roster is also reflected in the 2019 recruiting class. Brownell is bringing in 3 “combo guards” (read that as smallish shooting guards who can also play point if needed) to provide some instant shooting for the Tigers next year. If you wonder why Clemson went to middle of nowhere Southern Indiana to bring in 3* Alex Hemenway, it’s because he hit 10 3’s in a single high school game this season.

For Clemson under Brad Brownell though, it’s never been a question of bringing in shooters. It’s always been a question of getting shooters to stay in the program. If he wants to run a more open offense, as it appears based on his recruiting, he has to make some sacrifices on defense to get them on the floor.

If Brad wants to be a buttoned down defensive team with athletic defenders at every position, he needs to stop recruiting shooters and start recruiting more athletes (I’ll cover that in another post).

The motion offense, with an identity, is a thing of beauty when run properly. The problem with Clemson’s offense, in my opinion, is not that the motion offense doesn’t work, it’s that Clemson’s generic brand of motion offense featuring guys that can “sort of” shoot and “sort of” defend doesn’t work. It would be great to recruit guys that can do both, but those players are few and far between right out of high school and generally collected by the top of the college basketball food chain. You can somewhat develop those players (Ryan Cline, for instance went from “can’t defend a chair” as a freshman to “can defend some players OK as long as you find the right match up” as a senior) but you’ve got to keep them in the program long enough for them to actually develop.

Either way, Brad Brownell needs to decide what type of team he wants to coach, and then get the players that can execute his vision or he will be gone soon enough, and with no one but himself to blame.