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Making Sense of the Up-and-Down Clemson Basketball Team

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Andersen Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Clemson basketball team has been an up-and-down enigma the last two seasons. Last year, they beat NC State, North Carolina (in Chapel Hill), and Duke in consecutive games, but lost at home to Yale, Miami, and Georgia Tech. They beat three teams that finished inside KenPom’s top 15, but lost to a Wake Forest squad that finished just 13-18. While it was frustrating to see them follow up big wins with total flops, it felt like they were a year away. Now, that year is here!

The 2021 Clemson Tigers are certainly better than last year’s team. The Tigers were just 72nd in KenPom’s ranking last season compared to 48th now. Clemson is currently projected as a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament. At 6-5 in ACC play, they’re currently 6th in the ACC standings, and have already played the teams ranked 1st-5th six times and will not face any of them again in the regular season. The Tigers are 13 in RPI. By any reasonable metric, they’re doing what they supposed to in the “pay-off year.”

The Tigers are 3-5 in Quad 1 games this season and undefeated in Quad 2, 3, and 4 games. That seems to show that they’ve found consistency, but those who have watched the Tigers this season know consistent is the last word anyone would use to describe them. In their 11 ACC games (all stats that follow are from ACC games only), their wins have come by a comfortable 8-point average margin. Their losses have come by a ridiculous 21-point margin. They’ve been outscored by 65 points. They have just one game that was decided by three points or less, a one-point win over Miami.

It’s almost like there are two Clemson teams, but what makes them so different?

One would be tempted to point to Clemson’s shooting. When Clemson is winning, it seems they’re on fire from three. The statistics do not bear this out though. Clemson shoots 32% from three in wins compared to 29% in losses. Certainly that makes a difference, and it seems they come out hot at the start of games that end as wins, but that 3-percentage point difference hardly explains the 29-point swing in average margin between Clemson’s wins and losses.

Clemson is the worst three-point shooting team in ACC play at a paltry 30.8% . You’d think they shoot fewer of them in wins, but they actually shoot an average of 26 three-pointers in wins compared to 23.4 in losses.

They don’t shoot much better from two in wins vs. losses either. They average 48% from two in wins compared to 47% in losses.

So perhaps Clemson is more careful with the ball in wins? Not so! They average 13.5 turnovers in wins compared to 13.4 in losses.

So what’s the story?

It starts on the other side of the ball. Clemson forces 13.7 turnovers in their wins compared to 11.4 in their losses. Live ball turnovers speed up tempo. In their ACC wins, the Tigers played at very average pace (68 possessions per game), but in their losses they played at a snail’s pace that would put them only behind Virginia for the slowest pace in conference play (64 possessions).

Clemson opponents have shot just 29% from three in Clemson wins compared to an absurd 45% in Clemson losses. Part of it is luck, part of that is contesting shots. Despite losses coming in slower tempo games with less total shots, opponents shoot nearly four more three-pointers in Clemson losses than Clemson wins. STS Writer, Drew Schneider, explains this phenomenon in his Syracuse game preview:

Clemson isn’t good enough on offense to deal with a barrage of 3 pointers. The trouble is that Clemson gives up a ton of good 3 point looks because their defense collapses into the paint at the slightest hint of a dribble drive. They need opponents to miss open 3’s.

So will we see Good Clemson or Bad Clemson in their final six games?

Things seem to be pointing towards good Clemson. They’ve won three of four with the only loss coming at Cameron Indoor where they haven’t won in ages. They have the 10th strongest strength of schedule so far, but it eases up dramatically with no teams currently ranked inside the KenPom top 55.

Of course, whenever one gets too optimistic about Clemson basketball, something bad seems to happen. The next four games include Georgia Tech who already beat Clemson by 18 and three road games. The Tigers are just 1-4 on the road in the ACC.

While predicting Clemson basketball always seems to be a folly, we can at least more clearly see the recipe Coach Brownell has to cook up to get Good Clemson and not the distasteful one. They must contest three-pointers and force turnovers. Use those turnovers to pick up the pace and move the ball more. The Tigers average 3.3 more assists in their wins. When the Tigers are doing those things, they are a team that can not just make the NCAA tournament but win a game or two in it.

To sum it up, let’s turn to another STS writer, this time Calvin Craft:

...this team is capable of being at the top end of the league when it plays defense with the type of energy we have seen the last two outings.