Last spring, Brad Brownell surely felt some vindication. Entering the 2013-14 season, little to nothing was expected of Clemson. A Tiger team with no seniors on its roster coming off a miserable 13–18 season was picked to finish 14th in the ACC, and Brownell landed on several national “hot seat” lists.
Brownell responded with perhaps his best coaching job yet: The Tigers won 23 games, narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament and made the NIT Final Four. Clemson officials rewarded him with a new six-year contract that averages $1.55 million per year.
Now comes the hard part: repeating and building on that success without his best player. Athletic forward K.J. McDaniels declared for the NBA Draft after a first-team All-ACC season in which he led the Tigers in scoring, rebounds, blocked shots and steals. McDaniels is the only major loss from a 23–13 team, but in an ever-improving ACC that welcomes national power Louisville, breaking through to the NCAA Tournament won’t be easy.
“We’re in a monster league. We have got IBM and Coca-Cola and all those people in our league and they are not going away,” Brownell says. “They reload with McDonald’s All Americans every year, and we have got to continue to take the guys that we recruit and build them up and get them to play hard and get stronger.”
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Even with McDaniels and 6-10 forward Ibrahim Djambo (transfer) gone, Clemson’s frontcourt is far from bare. Junior center Landry Nnoko was one of the ACC’s most improved players last season, averaging 6.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Sophomore forward Jaron Blossomgame showed flashes while continuing to recover from a compound leg fracture that forced him to miss the 2013-14 season, averaging nearly five points and five rebounds per game while showing athleticism and versatility.
Djambo’s transfer clears room for 6’8” freshman forward Donte Grantham — a versatile top-100 recruit — to see significant time this winter. Junior Josh Smith and sophomore Sidy Djitte are big bodies who’ll have reserve roles.
Clemson Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-10, 10-8 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2011
Coach: Brad Brownell (74-58 at Clemson, 32-36 ACC)
ACC Projection: 11th
Postseason Projection: NIT
Last winter, Clemson won games with defense; the Tigers held opponents to 58.4 points per game. Such stinginess was crucial, because even with McDaniels’ presence, Brownell’s bunch struggled to score. Clemson ranked 13th in the league in scoring (63.5 ppg), 13th in field goal shooting (.424) and 14th in 3-point shooting (.310).
“We have to improve our shooting,” Brownell says. “At the end of the day, we can’t continue to be one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the ACC and expect to finish in the top six or seven in the league.”
That said, the Tigers return plenty of experience in the backcourt while also adding firepower from several sources. Senior point guard Rod Hall has proven himself as a capable, gritty leader trusted with running the team in key situations. He averaged 9.7 points and 4.0 assists per game as a junior. Senior swingman Damarcus Harrison originally planned on leaving for a Mormon mission before last season, but Clemson is glad he stuck around. He emerged during the ACC season as a talented shooter, averaging 7.8 points while sinking 35 percent of his 3-pointers. Junior guard Jordan Roper was up-and-down but is also capable of burning teams from 3-point range.
Sophomore Austin Ajukwa averaged just 2.3 points per game as a freshman but showed flashes of becoming an athletic shooter during the Tigers’ postseason push. Coaches are very excited about redshirt freshman guard Patrick Rooks, a talented shooter who was forced to miss last season following a hip injury. And expect a significant contribution from freshman Gabe DeVoe, a Parade All-American who averaged 34.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a Shelby (N.C.) senior.
Basketball will never be the marquee sport at football-crazy Clemson. This is one of the toughest jobs in the ACC, and the additions of Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse have only made it harder. Brownell took a team full of Oliver Purnell recruits to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, but last season’s NIT run, keyed by McDaniels and gritty defense, won back some supporters who had strayed from the program.
The Tigers likely won’t sink all the way to the bottom of the ACC, but minus the electric McDaniels, Brownell will have to wring even more out of his players to get back to remain in the hunt for an NCAA bid.
Clemson has only two eligible newcomers, but both should contribute. Freshman forward Donte Grantham is a top-100 recruit who chose Clemson over a number of high-major schools and will play major minutes with versatility. Guard Gabe DeVoe, a big-time scorer from North Carolina, adds much-needed shooting to the backcourt.