Clemson Looks to Reverse Its Bad Fortune

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 19th, 2017

This article was supposed to be written a year ago. With the non-conference season winding to a close and the usual suspects proving themselves to be heavyweights, Clemson had the look of a squad ready to pose a viable threat to the conference elite. Except things did not go according to plan. Even with a preseason all-conference selection in Jaron Blossomgame and an 11-2 start heading into the new year, the Tigers proceeded to lose their next six games en route to a 6-12 ACC finish. As RTC’s Brad Jenkins has explained, many of those defeats came in excruciatingly close fashion — 12 of Clemson’s 16 losses a year ago came by fewer than six points. The biggest problem with that team was that there really wasn’t a big problem — Clemson was just exceedingly unlucky in close games, finishing 315th in KenPom’s luck metric.

Is Clemson Finally For Real This Season? (USA Today Images)

While bad luck certainly is attributable to last year’s failings, it’s not unprecedented for the head coach to take the fall in a season where expectations were elevated in both the preseason and heading into conference play. However, much to the surprise of many, Clemson opted to retain Brad Brownell for an eighth and presumably final chance to drag the program into fringe Top 25 and consistent NCAA participant territory. To this point in the season, things looks promising, but the Tigers have certainly been here before.

Heading into tonight’s game with intrastate rival South Carolina at 9-1 and coming off an impressive comeback win over a puzzling but talented Florida team, Clemson has the appearance of a team that can break its way into the upper echelon of the ACC a year later than expected. All five of Clemson’s starters are averaging double figures (accounting for a staggering 83 percent of the team’s scoring), and the balance among that quintet is worth noting. Junior defensive stalwart Elijah Thomas (eighth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage/58th in block percentage) is the leader in usage at just under 24 percent, while the leader in minutes played, Gabe DeVoe, ranks lowest of the starters in terms of usage at 18 percent. Coming back from a disappointing junior campaign, Donte Grantham’s production this season is more commensurate with his physical abilities. The senior forward ranks 15th nationally in effective field goal percentage and 16th in true shooting, highlighted by a blistering 78 percent clip from two-point range. Juniors Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell rank second and third, respectively, on the team in scoring, while Mitchell leads the team in assists at 4.7 helpers a game (169th nationally in assist rate).

All of this sounds nice, but this is still Clemson — why should we get excited? Last Saturday’s victory over the Gators is a big reason why. The Tigers led for only 80 seconds of the 71-69 win, but two things became quite obvious as the game played out. First, the perceived talent gap between the two teams is marginal at best, particularly in terms of their top five players. Secondly, Clemson seems well aware of the narrative that defined the team a season ago. Grinding out a tough victory over a team that needed a win points to lessons learned through last year’s hardship.

South Carolina provides the Tigers with their last real challenge before ACC play tips off on December 30. The Gamecocks should also provide inspiration. Nobody alive a year ago this week (other than perhaps Frank Martin) thought South Carolina would be in the 2017 Final Four. Clemson isn’t on anyone’s radar just yet, but the pieces are here. With a flip of some fortune, there’s no reason to believe Brownell’s team cannot make a run in the ACC along with an equally impressive one in March.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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