College basketball returns Thanksgiving week after an especially long off-season (literally). Last season was abruptly ended during conference tournament play, and March Madness was cancelled. The 2020-21 season was delayed 15 days from its original November 10th start date, and many (but not all) non-conference games have been cancelled.
Although focus is still deservedly on the 7-1 Clemson football team that has just three wins between them and a rematch with Notre Dame, basketball season is fast approaching. Before we look forward, let’s look back to familiarize ourselves with how last season went for the hardwood Tigers.
2019-20 Season Review
Last season, Clemson was severely hampered by injuries. Clyde Trapp and Jonathan Baehre tore their ACLs before the season started. Trapp was able to return after missing the first 10 games, but still wasn’t 100%. Baehre missed the first eight games, returned for two, but got hurt again and missed the rest of the season.
Additionally, Chase Hunter, an athletic wing player expected to contribute as a freshman, battled a lingering foot issue for the first half of the season before finally shutting it down. Sharpshooting freshman Alex Hemenway had a high ankle sprain in the second game of the season and missed 16 games while recovering. On top of all that, the Tigers star player, PF Aamir Simms missed the Notre Dame game leading to a narrow Tigers loss.
As the football team was gearing up for the Fiesta Bowl, the basketball team gave fans no reason to think about hoops. They were 6-7 (0-3) on December 31. All but one of those six wins came against teams that ended the season ranked 118th or worse (KenPom). Fortunately, the Tigers got healthier, gelled, and closed out the season 9-8 despite the schedule toughening as they moved into ACC play. They became the first Clemson team to beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, and briefly flirted with the NCAA bubble before losing three of their final four regular season games to enter the conference tournament at 15-15 (9-11).
They ended the year with a first round ACC Tournament win over Miami. Their next game (vs. FSU) was cancelled just moments before tipoff. Barring some huge upsets in the ACC tournament, the Tigers would have missed the NCAA tournament and likely the NIT too.
With so many players to replace entering the season, few expected an NCAA bid in 2019-20, but the bad start sapped excitement from the season before football season ended. The season was full of the highest of highs (beating NCSU, UNC, and Duke back-to-back-to-back) and the lowest of lows (losing to U of SC and Yale by 9+ in a seven day span). With the team coming back mostly intact, expectations will be higher in 2020-21, especially for some consistency.
Key Departing Players:
- Tevin Mack (6’6”)
- Curran Scott (6’4”)
- Khavon Moore (6’8”) (Transfer out)
- Trey Jemison (7’0”) (Transfer out)
Key New Players:
- PJ Hall (6’10”)
- Nick Honor (5’10”) (Transfer from Fordham)
- Olivier-Maxence Prosper (6’8”)
- Lynn Kidd, (6’10.5”)
The Tigers struggled with guard depth last season, especially while Clyde Trapp, Chase Hunter, and Alex Hemenway were all injured at the same time. This year should be different. Not only are all three of those players healthy and a year older, but Fordham transfer PG Nick Honor is now cleared to play after sitting out last season (per transfer rules).
As we’ve seen in football, depth will get tested in 2020. Clemson is in better position to handle that challenge than a season ago. This is especially the case at point guard.
Point guard play wasn’t superb last season. Throwing true freshman Al-Amir Dawes into the ACC fire wasn’t ideal. Clyde Trapp played some point guard as well, but he wasn’t 100%, and is better off the ball anyway. This year a sophomore Dawes will be aided by Nick Honor. The duo should be a step-change improvement from last year’s PG play.
Depth doesn’t do much good if everyone settles for threes and shoot a poor percentage from beyond the arc. That was largely the problem last season, when a whopping 46.4% of the Tigers’ shots were three-pointers but they only made 31.5% of them. They were 19th in the country in the proportion of shots that were from beyond the line, but only 267th in 3P%.
But there’s reason for optimism. Forward Tevin Mack brought a lot to the team, but one of those things was not efficient shooting. He shot a team-high 166 three-pointers, but only made 28.3% of them. Curran Scott likewise shot 72 three-pointers, but only made 26.4%. Both have departed. The team’s four best three-point shooters (Hemenway, Simms, Tyson, and Dawes) all return. The team’s true sharpshooter, Alex Hemenway, is healthy and has a year under his belt. On top of that, Nick Honor shot .337 on 202 attempts in his last season at Fordham. There’s reason for optimism, but it is all unproven.
The other glaring issue is a lack of true post presence. The defense’s block percentage plummeted from 20th in 2018-19 to 223rd last season. The loss of center Elijah Thomas was sorely felt. Will the Tigers protect the rim better this season? Freshman PJ Hall is 6’10” and may help, but expecting a lot from freshmen has seldom worked out at Clemson. Lynn Kidd, the other freshman big man, was in the class of 2021, but reclassified into the 2020 class. He would have redshirted if not for the free year COVID-19 eligibility rules afford. On top of that, Tevin Mack was the Tigers’ best rim protector aside from Simms last season, and he is gone. The Tigers are relying heavily on freshmen for rim protection.
A lack of size could also spell trouble with rebounding, but this is less of a concern because Hunter Tyson proved to be an excellent rebounder last season. He had the highest rebounding percentage on the team. Between Tyson, Simms, and PJ Hall, rebounding shouldn’t be a glaring issue. Last season, The Tigers were a solid defensive rebounding team, but a poor offensive rebounding one. That should remain the same unless Simms, Hall, or Hunter Tyson has an injury. Then it could become a big problem.
With more guard depth than usual, will the Tigers play with more tempo? Will they bring more pressure in man-to-man defense? These are opportunities afforded by that depth.
Several players have real breakout potential. John Newman may be the most obvious candidate. He averaged 9.5 points per game with good efficiency and strong defense. He attacked the basket when other Tigers were too willing to settle for jump shots. Similarly, getting Chase Hunter and Clyde Trapp healthy creates optimism for what they can do.
Hunter Tyson, the 6’8” forward, is another player bursting with potential. He played just 13.6 minutes per game last season, but was a good rebounder in those minutes, and a threat from the outside. He scored 21 points against Wake Forest, but then scored only 12 points in total over the next seven games (including a rematch against Wake Forest). His minutes fluctuated greatly from game to game as well. Will he earn consistent playing time? Will he produce? He could be a difference maker for this team.
Finally, the biggest wildcard may be Jonathan Baehre, who only played two games last season. If he can stay healthy and find his rhythm, he could provide some much needed depth in the front-court.
Injuries were a huge problem last season, and there have already been some guys dinged up this off-season. John Newman had off-season knee surgery, and Chase Hunter broke his finger. Both should be fine now, but this team can’t sustain injuries like they did last season and expect a much different result.
The Tigers displayed a penchant for mediocre starts the last two seasons. In 2018-19, they played four November/December games against teams that ended ranked in the KenPom top 80. They went 2-3 (beat U of SC and Lipscomb). Last November/December they were 0-5 in such games. With the season shortened and cupcake games primarily being the ones removed, a slow start won’t get glossed over by beating Presbyterian and Alabama A&M. This November and December could bring seven top-80 opponents compared and just two weaker foes. The Tigers can’t afford to be behind the eight ball before getting into the meat of the ACC schedule.
“The Tigers had a lot of players to replace and injuries to navigate last season, yet still finished the regular season 15-15. With better injury luck, and more depth and experience in the backcourt, earning an NCAA tournament berth with a record right around 14-12 (10-10) is a realistic hope.” - Ryan Kantor
“I’m optimistic about this team, provided it can stay healthy. The team should see a boost in offensive efficiency, with Dawes having received a trial by fire last year and Honor coming off his sit-out year. Newman and Tyson should be ready to reach their potential as juniors, and Simms gives the team an All-ACC caliber leader. The schedule is challenging, but the Tigers should have the depth to navigate it better than most years. Give me a top six finish in the ACC and an NCAA bid.” - C_Craft
“I think this is the most talented team in the Brad Brownell era, but I’m not sure it will be the best team. The talent is young and it might take a minute to gel. I have 2022 circled as the make or break year for this squad.” - Drew Schneider
Our full Clemson basketball season preview is three-parts. Check out the other two parts below: