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ACC Preview #6 - Clemson

Will the Tigers tank? Or claw their way back?

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NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Duke
Feb 11, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Brad Brownell reacts to a call by an official in the second half of their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson basketball is usually pretty straightforward. A coach is hired who follows one or two basic templates: Clif Ellis or Bill Foster.

The Ellis’s tend to recruit well and not be as solid on the x-and-o stuff; the Fosters are more or less the opposite.

Hire them, hope the football team does well and fire them in 4-5 years.


Brad Brownell is a really good coach but Clemson is a tough job for anyone. He has recruited reasonably well and has generally won, but even so, he was on the hot seat last spring.

How hot?

Clemson was reportedly prepared to fire Brownell and hire alum Will Wade away from VCU where he had made a quick and solid impression. He ended up at LSU of course, a school with much more basketball tradition.

He would have solved Clemson’s biggest dissatisfaction with Brownell, which is criticism for a defense-first style that many find boring. Wade likes a faster game.

Despite not having elite talent, Brownell usually competes well with coaches who do. Take last season for example: Clemson lost to Xavier and Oklahoma by six each, to UNC by three in OT, to Notre Dame by five, Virginia by four, Virginia Tech by one, Syracuse by one, Duke by two, Virginia Tech by one and FSU by two.

Yes, they lost those games but the close scores suggests a well-coached team that stuck together. Take the games they lost by four or less and flip them and Clemson would have finished 24-9 and Browned would be hailed as a genius.

His situation was made somewhat worse with South Carolina making its first Final Four. A lot of younger ACC fans don’t understand that that rivalry is about as intense as Duke-UNC or UNC-State and for the Gamecocks to do that wasn’t good for Clemson and Brownell.

Then things got off to an unsettling start this summer when Clemson, touring Spain, was on the same street in Barcelona where a terror attack occurred. Forward Donte Grantham in fact had just gone inside seconds before a vehicle plowed into pedestrians.

While frightening, it no doubt made priorities clear for the team: basketball is great but it’s not the most important thing in the world.

And it may also have helped to bond this year’s group even more tightly together.

From last year’s team Clemson loses Avry Holmes, Sidy Djitte, Ty Hudson, Legend Robertin, and most critically Jaron Blossomgame.

Blossomgame was a real and versatile talent who is now with the San Antonio Spurs.

He’ll be very difficult to replace.

Holmes averaged 10.3 ppg last season. He was a solid though not great player.

Djitte also exhausted his eligibility and averaged 6.5 ppg and 7.7 rpg as a senior.

Hudson and Robertin transferred and didn't really leave much of a mark before leaving town, but it is kind of cool that Robertin’s parents made sure that he’d go through life constantly being called a legend. It’s just going to have to be for something other than basketball.

The Tigers return Grantham, Gabe DeVoe, Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas.

The 6-8 Grantham was a highly regarded high school talent who somehow ended up at Clemson but he hasn’t really torn things up there: he averaged 7. 5 ppg last year and 4.3 boards. He’s probably Clemson’s best front court player though.

Like Grantham, Thomas was very highly rated in high school but he left Texas A&M almost immediately, bailing after just eight games. Remarkably, with two exceptions, his minutes went down in every game he played for the Aggies: he got 13 in his second and third games and 19 against Asheville in his fourth.

Otherwise the graph was heading towards zero - 7, 4, 3, 2 in his last four games. His minutes at Clemson in the spring semester (he was a mid-year eligible transfer) were much more consistent.

There is some uncertainty in the frontcourt and inexperience too. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

Clemson’s strength, at least in preseason, is in the backcourt: Mitchell, Reed, and DeVoe are all solid. They combined for 27.9 ppg last season, 7.4 rpg and 7.4 apg.

Mitchell and Reed shot 45.3% and 40.2% from three point range respectively.

And the new guys?

Mark Donnal is a 6-9 center who transferred from Michigan and as you can probably guess with a John Beilein transfer that means three point shooting. He didn't play a lot at Michigan but he’s experienced and adds something. He’s 6-9 and 240.

David Skara comes over from Valpo with two years left. We don’t know much about him but if the import from Croatia has the standard Euro skillset he’ll add to Clemson’s versatility. He’s 6-8 and lean.

Malik William is a 6-8 forward who, uh, is not lacking in confidence: “I was looking and seeing that this was [Blossomgame’s] last year, and it was my thought I could come in and play as a freshman. So I made the decision that way. They are getting an outstanding player who can control the game. I feel like I play offense as well as I play defense. I can block shots and rebound, but I also can step out and hit the three-pointer. I like to bring the ball up the court, and I like to move and get the ball in my hands.”

Bet you do, sport, bet you do.

Aamar Sims is a 6-7 kid out of Palmyra, Virginia. He may be a bit undersized, but people are treating him as a power forward. He’ll have to fill out to do that in college.

Anthony Oliver II enrolled last semester and redshirted so he’s ahead of the game a bit.

If the name sounds familiar you may be remembering Anthony Oliver 1.0 - the Virginia point guard.

Oliver II’s mom is Audra Smith, who is the women’s coach at Clemson. He’s 6-5 and 180 and his recruitment didn’t cost a thing - he is from Clemson and obviously spent time around Littlejohn growing up.

His dad was an admirable player. If his son is as good Clemson got pretty lucky. He’s 6-5 and reputedly reasonably athletic. Brownell will know what to do with him.

Clemson reached into legendary Lower Richland High for one more recruit, 6-4 Clyde Trapp.

That school just cranks out players. It’s like it’s in D.C. or Baltimore. The list is long and a lot of them stayed close to home, including Trapp’s AAU coach, Ed Scott, who played for Clemson in his day.

He’s another handy player - he can play point, shooting guard or small forward.

So what does Brownell do with this bunch? Well, he’s got some versatile pieces - a lot in fact.

Thomas is probably not going to get too far away from the basket but Donnal will and Grantham has a nice skill set. The returning guards have good chemistry. Most of the forwards have guard skills and some of the guards can play front court. He should have a lot of flexibility with this group.

But none of this changes the fact that while Brownell got a six-year extension he’s still coming off a year where Clemson was ready to cut him loose if Wade wanted the job.

However Clemson is unlikely to fire him anytime soon: A.D. Dan Radakovich, who came over from Georgia Tech, agreed to a large buyout.

After his experience at Tech that’s remarkable.

Paul Hewitt got Radakovich’s predecessor at Tech, Dave Braine, to agree to a very long deal with a crippling buyout. Tech just had to put up with losing for a few years because they couldn’t afford the buyout and Radakovich was the guy left holding the bag on that.

Why would he do this? Well this is one possibility. Keep in mind that this is just speculation; we have no insight into what happened. But it kind of makes sense.

If we heard about the Wade maneuver then obviously Brownell knew as well and he was bound to have considered his options. Who wouldn’t? He had to.

So after Wade passed, Radakovich was faced with the prospect of not getting Wade and also potentially losing Brownell - the classic bird in the hand conundrum.

So in other words, after almost getting fired, perhaps Brownell suddenly had some unexpected leverage.

Look, whatever happened, we think Clemson is lucky to have Brownell. He’s about as good as it is going to get for the Tigers unless they catch someone like Wade or former Clemson assistant Shaka Smart on the rise and they like building a program or, in Wade’s case, have an attachment to the school. Most coaches are going to view Clemson as a stepping stone and Brownell could, if our hunch is correct, bail on the Tigers after a year or two. When your boss comes that close to replacing you, why not?

But he doesn’t have to. His new deal makes it really hard for Clemson to fire him.

That said, if things go badly this year, the fans are going to scream bloody murder and the guy they’re going to focus on, other than Brownell, is Radakovich.

And if that happens, and he can’t afford to fire Brownell, Radakovich is going to get a nasty case of deja-vu.

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