Everybody knows how abruptly the men’s basketball season ended this year. Clemson was literally in the dressing room for their quarterfinal game in the ACC tournament against Florida State when the plug was yanked out of the wall and the season was cancelled. It was just another wild notation to add to what was one of the craziest, if not THE craziest, basketball season in Clemson history. Was it a success? Was it a failure? It all depends on the initial perspective you had on this Tiger team. I’m going to take a look back at my season preview comments about the goals we at STS had set for the team and measure things from there.
Looking at Clemson’s schedule, I broke things down into three tiers using KenPom’s preseason rankings. Tier 1 is comprised of teams ranked 1-39, Tier 2 are teams ranked 40-120, and Tier 3 are teams ranked 121 or worse. Not including the second game out in Las Vegas, the Tigers had scheduled 9 Tier 1 games, 15 Tier 2 games, and 5 Tier 3 games. My goal for the team is usually to win 100% of Tier 3, 80% of Tier 2, and 30% of Tier 1 games. If that happened, the Tigers would be right around 19 wins before the ACC tournament and firmly in position to make the NCAA field. The previous year’s team did well in Tiers 2 and 3, but really struggled in Tier 1 (just 1 win) and that ultimately doomed the team to the NIT.
By the time the season got going, the rankings adjusted to leave Clemson with just 5 tier 3 games. The Tigers finished 5-0 in those contests so they met the goal there. Tier 2 ballooned from 15 to 19 and the Tigers went 8-11 in those games, so just 42% and far below the 80% goal we set. Clemson finished with 7 Tier 1 games and went 3-4 43% there, so they surpassed the 30% goal for the toughest games. This metric is based on the rankings of the teams at the time the games were played and not how they ended up. So a team like UVA who finished in the Tier 1 group was a high level Tier 2 at the time the game was played with them. UNC counted as a Tier 2 even though Clemson had never won in Chapel Hill before this season.
So the craziness is clear already. Clemson met or exceeded goals in two of the three tiers, but fell far short in the middle tier where the majority of the games are played in the ACC and finished at 16-15 with a final 9-11 ACC regular season record. Clemson was in position to secure a bid to the NIT after defeating Miami in their opening game of the ACC tournament. Most, including myself, felt the NIT was a reasonable goal for success for a team that was experiencing a major roster overhaul from the previous 3 seasons. The frustrating part was that the bigger pie was within reach after the huge win over eventual ACC champion Florida State on February 29th, but the Tigers fell flat in games against 105th ranked Virginia Tech and 64th ranked Georgia Tech (at home) to close the season.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? A closer look at the numbers can provide a few answers for this. Clemson’s 2018-19 team was built around Elijah Thomas inside and Marcquise Reed on the perimeter, who could shoot the 3 but did most of his work as a mid-range scorer. That season, Clemson finished just 256th in 3-point attempts per FG attempts while ranking 248th in percentage. That’s to say they weren’t a great 3-point shooting team and thus seldom attempted them.
The new look Tigers for this season became much more perimeter-oriented as Aamir Simms became essentially a stretch 5. Clemson’s 3-point attempts ballooned to 19th in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt while ranking an even worse 267th in 3-point percentage. Clemson’s defense was down just a bit from the previous year, mostly from losing the rim protection Thomas provided, and the offensive efficiency slipped from 106th to 155th nationally. The numbers suggest that Clemson should have suffered a greater drop in record from the 20-14 2018-19 season to the 16-15 2019-20 season. The power of the 3-pointer, though, is seen from Clemson’s ability to rise up and knock off some of the strongest teams on its schedule. When Clemson was hitting, or in the case of the second FSU game, getting very good guard play out of Al-Amir Dawes and John Newman III, they could play with anyone. The problem was those two underclassmen, with Dawes being a true freshman, were unable to consistently sustain that level of play.
Considering the roster overhaul and the injuries sustained by Clyde Trapp (who returned on December 20), Jonathan Baehre (who played in just 2 games between 2 torn ACLs), Alex Hemenway (16 games missed), and Chase Hunter (only 9 games played total), hindsight is more forgiving for the job Coach Brad Brownell did with this team. While there is certainly a group of fans who have had their fill of Brownell, the future seems brighter after he finally got some freshman impact out of Dawes and Hemenway while finally securing the top player out of SC in Dorman’s PJ Hall after coming in second for Zion Williamson and Josiah James in consecutive years.
Should the roster return intact, Clemson will have almost its entire production back. Only departing graduate Tevin Mack consistently started or logged starter level minutes. Fellow transfer Curran Scott saw sporadic minutes, though it will be noted he played his best game as a Tiger in his final appearance against Miami in Greensboro. Clemson will be adding a top 100 talent in Hall along with a high ceiling wing in Olivier Maxence-Prosper. Transfer point guard Nick Honor will be eligible to give Clemson another pure point guard behind Dawes. Aamir Simms is testing the NBA draft waters, but I would expect him to not garner the type of feedback to warrant signing with an agent and leaving. Of course, should Simms stay declared, that would be a huge blow to the possible momentum of the 2020-2021 season. Clemson should be well positioned to get a coveted NCAA tournament bid next season with Simms back (and the injury bug gone, hopefully).
This year’s team got the UNC monkey off of its back, which was an extremely necessary step in getting some much needed respect to the program. Clemson’s history in men’s basketball is pretty pitiful, usually marked by short spurts of relative success in between long stretches of futility. Coach Brownell is finally making some headway on the recruiting and evaluation fronts, which is where I felt his major weaknesses have been. I do think Brownell does a great job with the guys he does get and is able to keep in the program, and he has punched above his weight more often than not when you think of his rosters vs. much of the ACC. We should see a jump in production with better players in the program. If not, there should be little question why the Clemson administration would seek a change. 2020-2021 will be a very important year in determining the longer term direction of the program.