ACC Team Previews: ClemsonPosted by mpatton on October 28th, 2011
Brad Brownell had by far the most success of any of the new ACC coaches last season. He certainly landed in a nice place, with two very talented senior leaders in Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant. But in case you couldn’t tell, the man can flat out coach. After losing first round pick Trevor Booker, Brownell led the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament win since Rick Barnes last did so back in 1997. This year he has a lot less to work with, but don’t think the Tigers won’t be fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The first key for Clemson will be Andre Young. Young did a very good job last year sharing the backcourt responsibilities with Stitt. This year he needs to transition from off-the-ball sharpshooter who also spends time running the offense to floor general and, in announcer-speak, the straw that stirs the drink. Just behind Stitt in assists rate and offensive rating, it’s possible to argue he was the second most important player on the floor last season. Although it’s important to keep in mind that Young’s primary jobs were to allow Stitt to play off the ball some and keep opponents’ perimeter defenses honest, this year he’s going to need to really step into a bigger role, and it’s tough to tell how ready he’ll be.
After Young the Tigers desperately need a second option to step up. Milton Jennings, Tanner Smith and Devin Booker all have the talent and experience. The problem is none of them have lived up to their potential yet. Based on Smith’s play during the conference season last year (where he shot 39% from downtown), I’m inclined to choose him as the best second option but I think Smith thrives more as a rock-solid role player. You can count on him to efficiently put up ten or 12 points a game, but I’m not convinced he’ll exceed that with regularity. Booker showed flashes last year too, but mainly against less talented teams. It’s high time Clemson fans stopped comparing him to his older brother: even during his sophomore season, Trevor Booker was a much more efficient scorer. He didn’t settle for jumpers and shot well over fifty percent from inside the arc all four years. Unless Devin has put on some pounds and grit this summer, he won’t become a second or third option on offense.
Jennings has more talent than anyone on the roster but only showed it in flashes last season — especially against North Carolina (he put up a career high 16 points against the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament after dropping a 15 point 12 rebound performance on them at Littlejohn earlier in the season). Don’t forget that Jennings was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. He’s the kind of player who should thrive under a detail-oriented coach like Brownell. His size and athleticism make him a potential asset on both ends of the floor, but it remains to be seen whether Jennings has caught up to his upside although I expect him to take the biggest leap forward this season.
I’ve talked about what Clemson lost; now it’s time for what the team gained. The Tigers’ incoming recruiting class sports four guards and a forward. Bernard Sullivan, ranked in the top 100 prospects by both Scout and Rivals, is the lone incoming four-star recruit. Sullivan will probably see quite a few minutes this season. However, arguably the more intriguing prospect — especially in the long term — is TJ Sapp. Sapp is a combo guard in the mold of Stitt, but more importantly he just gets it. In this interview with CUTigers, he shows that he already understands Brownell’s system: “Even though we [the freshmen] don’t know all the plays yet, we know it’s all about defense. If we come out and work hard on defense, you can go as far as the defense can take you.”
With its question marks on offense, Clemson will rely even more on defense this year. The rotation has six players between 6’5″ and 6’8″, which should create plenty of mismatches against other teams. If Jennings has a break-out season, the Tigers should compete for fourth in the conference. If he doesn’t, they could easily be looking at finishing in the bottom half of the ACC. As usual, Clemson’s non-conference schedule isn’t overflowing with tough teams, but the Tigers are traveling to Tucson to play Pac-12 favorite Arizona in mid-December.
I expect this team to improve dramatically as the season progresses on account of its youth, which makes the opening of conference play (at home against Florida State, at Boston College and at home against Duke) a very tough stretch. Assuming the team’s psyche remains intact, the rest of conference play should be more reasonable. It’s certainly going to be more difficult than last season, but I like Clemson to earn another at-large bid to the Big Dance.