Clemson basketball is 13-3 (5-0) and currently sitting in first place in the ACC with one of the weakest Louisville squads in ages coming to Littlejohn on Wednesday. It’s a good place to be and well above our preseason expectations.
Before the year started, we suggest that being in the NCAA tournament conversation through mid-February — when Clemson baseball started — was the hope. We figured this team had a huge variance in how good (or bad) they could turn out to be:
There are a lot of wild cards there, and that’s why I believe this team has a pretty wide variance. If PJ Hall and Tyson Hunter stay healthy and improve upon last season, Clemson will have their best post-duo in ages. If they can get three ACC-level starters out of Chase Hunter, Dillon Hunter, Josh Beadle, Alex Hemenway, and Brevin Galloway, they could be an NCAA tournament team. 13-7 in ACC play is about the best case scenario.
Hitting that 13-7 upside is now looking likely and they could even exceed it. Let’s talk a little bit about how Clemson got here.
They had a mediocre performance in non-conference play
Clemson’s non-conference performance was sub-par. They picked up two bad losses one coming to the 215th-ranked (KenPom) South Carolina Gamecocks and the other to 192nd-ranked Loyola Chicago. They also dropped a game to Iowa, but Iowa is a strong opponent and Clemson lost in thrilling fashion after a few questionable calls. That one doesn’t hurt as bad. In all, Clemson exited non-conference play with a 1-1 record against KenPom top 100 teams, a 2-1 record against teams ranked between 100-199, and a 5-1 record against teams ranked 200 or worse. That start wasn’t ideal.
PJ Hall only missed one game, but was limited both in minutes and effectiveness throughout most of non-conference play. While that hurt, it was guard play and a lack of depth that was the bigger issue.
Big lineups have yielded big results
Recognizing their quality depth in the front court and the youth of their guards, Coach Brownell began using bigger lineups. Ian Schieffelin is averaging 16.4 minutes and 3.9 rebounds per game. He’s not a star, but he gives the Tigers good size and is comfortable with the ball. Ben Middlebrooks isn’t as nimble or quite the shooter that Schieffelin is, but he is getting 11.2 minutes and looking better with each passing game. He adds toughness and rim protection and allows Clemson to stay big when PJ Hall sits. The 6-foot-9 freshman, Chauncey Wiggins, is even getting some playing time. He is averaging just 6.2 minutes per game, but was in during a critical late stretch against Pittsburgh and netted a big basket helped swung the game in the Tigers’ favor.
With Schieffelin, Hunter Tyson, and PJ Hall, Clemson is rolling three players onto the court that are 6-foot-7 or taller. This also takes a lot of pressure off the young guards and allows Clemson to only play two at a time. With Alex Hemenway dealing with a foot injury (plantar fasciitis) that has been big.
Guard play has been just enough
Alex Hemenway has stepped up and helped boost guard play. He has only played in 12 games due to the aforementioned foot injury, but hopefully will only miss one or two more games. He has 27 3-pointers and is shooting them at an insanely efficient 50%. His return will give the Tigers a boost, but they’ve kept winning without him thanks in large part to redshirt freshman Josh Beadle. Beadle is not a major 3-point threat going just 3-15 this season, but his defense and passing has been stellar.
Brevin Galloway is the incoming transfer that Clemson brought in from Boston College. He was very inefficient there and I was concerned how his shot selection would be at Clemson. He often has me saying “no, no, no, yes!” as he takes seemingly ill-advised shots and makes them. Despite my concerns, he is averaging 10.1 points and is shooting a 45.2% from the field. Of the five players on the team with 30 or more three-point attempts, his 34.3% is the worst. He should probably throttle that back and be more selective from behind the arc, but beyond that, he has been critical to Clemson’s thin group of guards.
Chase Hunter has emerged as one of the best players on the team. The difference you see in how the offense works with or without him is obvious. He is averaging 14.6 points and 4.5 assists. His sudden transformation from inefficient, injury-prone reserve to star player at mid-season of last year has completely carried over to this year. He may be the most irreplaceable player on the team given the lack of depth Clemson has in the backcourt.
Hunter Tyson is a star
Hunter Tyson is the best performing player on the team. PJ Hall is the biggest name and Chase Hunter is the most athletic, but Tyson has shown gradual improvement over his five-year Clemson career and is now worthy of All-ACC discussion. He is averaging 15.4 points and 10 rebounds per game. He is shooting 43% from 3 and 86.9% from the FT line. His offensive efficiency ranks 60th best in the entire nation. Of the three major sports at Clemson, he is probably the best performing student athlete aside from linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Barrett Carter. That’s some high praise.
For some perspective, on just how good of a season he is having, we can look back on Horace Grant. He is one of Clemson’s greatest players ever. As a junior in the 1985-86 season, he averaged 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds. As a senior he averaged 21.0 and 9.6. Hunter Tyson isn’t quite on his level and his numbers could dip as the schedule toughens, but the fact that we can even have this conversation is amazing.
A look ahead
If the Tigers can beat Louisville on Wednesday — which KenPom gives them a 96% chance to do — they’ll be 6-0 with 14 non-conference games remaining. Just going .500 across those 14 games gets them to 13-7. Unfortunately, with their poor non-conference performance they may need a little more (Wake Forest missed the tournament at 13-7 last season).
Clemson only has to play Duke, Virginia, Miami, and North Carolina once each. Reaching 14 or even 15 ACC wins is not impossible. In fact, KenPom has boosted their projections and now has Clemson finishing 15-5 in ACC play. That’s may be a bit lofty, but at this point, reaching the NCAA tournament is the recalibrated goal. It is now tournament or bust. This team is certainly giving us something worth watching well into the New Year.