ACC Burning Questions: Clemson Tigers

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 1st, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Is this the year that Clemson returns to the NCAA Tournament?

Clemson head coach Brad Brownell has a swanky remodeled home arena, a returning All-America candidate and three talented transfers ready to join a group that finished last season at 10-8 in ACC play. After five consecutive seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Tigers may finally be poised to crash the Big Dance once again. Brownell’s job security may or may not depend on an invitation to the NCAA Tournament this year, but history shows that it is an extremely rare situation for an ACC coach to remain in his post after six straight years of missing the games premier event.

Brad Brownell hopes this is the year that Clemson makes it back to the NCAA Tournament. (sportstalksc.com)

Brad Brownell hopes that Clemson makes it back to the NCAA Tournament after a five-year hiatus. (sportstalksc.com)

In his six seasons at the helm, Brownell has developed a deserving reputation as a coach who maximizes his available talent. With a six-year 50-54 conference record, the Tigers have become a consistent middle-of-the-pack ACC program. Early in Brownell’s tenure, road wins were scarce — he logged only five such victories during his first three years at the school. But lately, the Tigers have improved in that regard by claiming 10 road wins over the past three seasons. Last year Clemson was very competitive in most of its away losses, dropping three games by three points or fewer and winning three others. Speaking of playing on the road, the Tigers also return to a remodeled Littlejohn Coliseum this season after spending 2015-16 at Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena — a 45-minute trip from campus. Capacity at the new Littlejohn is slightly lower now, but 9,000 wild fans should be plenty to recreate the electric home court atmosphere that students at Clemson have historically provided.

Last year was also unique to Clemson in another way as its offense — ranked 45th nationally in offensive efficiency — often carried the day. Brownell’s longstanding focus on defense did not fall very sharply (61st nationally), but the Tigers finished with their highest-rated offense in the Brownell era by shooting well (50.5% eFG) and by taking good care of the basketball (15.8% turnover rate). Considering what the Tigers have returning and the potential of his newly eligible transfers, Clemson has the makings of an even better offensive attack this season.

Dec 18, 2015; Greenville, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers forward Jaron Blossomgame (5) celebrates during a timeout in the second half against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The Gamecocks won 65-59. Mandatory Credit: Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Jaron Blossomgame’s return to Clemson has the Tigers expecting to contend for an upper half finish in the ACC in 2016-17. (Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports)

When Jaron Blossomgame decided to return for his senior year, the Tigers’ roster suddenly looked stacked. As a junior, his game truly blossomed (sorry, couldn’t resist) as the ACC’s Most Improved Player and a first team All-ACC recipient, and last week he was picked by the media to repeat that achievement in 2016-17. The Tigers’ leading scorer and rebounder is also getting some national recognition, recently chosen as the nation’s 12th best player in CBSSports.com’s top 100 (and one) rankings. Brownell talked about his star forward at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte last Wednesday:

Super competitive guy […] He’s a guy that’s played inside, outside. He’ll do whatever you ask him to do, really as a young player in our program, he was a big rebound-per-minute guy and defender and physicality and toughness and hustle, and last year he kind of emerged into more of a skill player. He was a guy that could make shots from the perimeter; he’s a guy that could read and make some passes. He’s still working to master those skills where he can create more shots and more scoring opportunities for others, but he’s still extremely competitive, unbelievable work ethic, and a guy that plays the game with the kind of confidence that you need when you play against the kind of players that we play against in this league.

Clemson has two other returning starters in junior forward Donte Grantham and senior guard Avry Holmes, both of whom averaged just over 10 points per game. Grantham led the team with 56 three-pointers, but this year Brownell wants him to find a way to get to the foul line more often than his meager total of 52 free throw attempts as a sophomore. Holmes, an excellent defender, had a solid first year after transferring into the program from San Francisco. This year he will be joined in the backcourt by another pair of newly eligible transfers, Marcquise Reed (Robert Morris) and Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt). Brownell described the pair last week:

Both those guys are talented players. Shelton Mitchell is a point guard with very good size, 6’3″, good passer, good vision, good speed. Guy who’s worked really hard over the last year and a half to improve his outside shooting. I think that is getting better by the day. And then Marcquise Reed is a very good complement to him. He’s a guy that’s kind of got an old-school game. He’s just a scorer. He can make threes, but he really would just as soon drive the ball into the paint. He can make runners, floaters. He’s got an uncanny knack to make tough two-point shots.

Senior Sidy Djitte, an outstanding rebounder, will get the first crack at the starting center spot, but that job may eventually go to transfer Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M), who will become eligible in December. Providing additional depth up front will be unproven seven-footer Legend Robertin. Backcourt depth is in better shape with returnees Gabe DeVoe and Ty Hudson also available for action.

Normally a team with a winning ACC record is a cinch for NCAA Tournament selection, but the Tigers weren’t even on last year’s bubble because of their horrible 7-5 performance against KenPom’s 341st rated non-conference schedule. This means that the pressure is on the Tigers to get it done in November and December because it will be difficult to match last year’s winning ACC record even if they have improved.

Brad Jenkins (271 Posts)


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