By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
For many Clemson fans, basketball is little more than a sideshow until the football season ends. As the Tigers await word on their bowl destination, the Clemson men’s basketball team continues the pre-conference portion of its schedule.
For those of you coming late to the party, here is a recap of the first month of college basketball in Clemson:
Where We Are: Clemson is off to a solid start this season. The Tigers went 6-1 in November, overwhelming opponents on both ends of the floor. Four of their six victories have been by 20 points or more, including a 29-point shellacking of Coastal Carolina that ended a head-scratching two-game losing skid against the Chanticleers.
The Tigers have also knocked off rival South Carolina and boast a neutral-site win over Temple. Currently, Clemson is 114th in the RPI—tenth-best among Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
Strength of Schedule: Not great. Clemson’s only loss came on a neutral floor at the hands of Massachusetts, which is currently the nation’s top-ranked team in the RPI. The Gamecocks are the only other top-50 school the Tigers have played so far. Clemson’s overall strength of schedule sits at 261st in the nation. Only Georgia Tech and Notre Dame have had easier roads thus far.
Help is coming in this regard. A road game with Arkansas (currently 35th) will provide a nice boost, but the rest of the non-conference schedule is littered with RPI-killers from small conferences. Clemson’s projected strength of schedule right now is 90, which is probably not good enough to impress any selection committees in March.
Best Player: K.J. McDaniels. There’s no question who has carried the load for the Tigers this season. McDaniels leads the team is scoring (18.6), rebounding (6.3), steals (1.3), and blocks (3.3) through seven games this season. The junior has improved consistency in his midrange game and three-point shooting, where he has hit on 38.7 percent of his attempts. Only Duke’s Jabari Parker has a higher usage rate than McDaniels’ 29.87 percent among ACC players.
Defensively, McDaniels makes an enormous impact. He has filled passing lanes well, and no one can question his aptitude at blocking shots—particularly in help defense. Also, McDaniels has hit 30 of his 34 free throw attempts in 2013.
Unsung Hero: Rod Hall. The junior point guard was a target of criticism last season for being timid and passive on the offensive end. Those critiques have been put to rest after a strong first month of play.
Hall is second on the team in scoring—averaging 10.9 points per game—as well as field goals (26) and field goal attempts (51). He has 28 assists and seven steals to go along with just seven turnovers. His more complete and efficient floor game makes him a legitimate weapon on both ends, which is why he leads the Tigers in minutes played.
Team Strengths: Defense. The Tigers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 52.9 points per game. They also rank second in field goal percentage defense (34.1%) and third in three-point percentage defense (21.2%). Brad Brownell has a strong man-to-man defensive unit once again in spite of the emphasis placed on curtailing contact in college hoops this season.
Depth. Nine different players are averaging double-digit minutes per game. Two others are averaging over nine minutes played per game, meaning the Tigers have the flexibility to use anywhere from nine to eleven players in the rotation. This depth can offset the lack of exceptional individual talents when the Tigers start to face better competition.
Free throw shooting. This is shocking to most Clemson fans, but the Tigers are drilling their foul shots so far this season. The team’s mark of 76.2 percent is within the nation’s top 30 and the third-best number in the ACC. As the season wears on, those numbers may come down a bit, but this is certainly a good sign.
Causes for Concern: Defensive rebounding. As a general rule, teams that block shots well tend to give up a bunch of offensive rebounds. This is the case with Clemson this season. The Tigers grab 68.8 percent of their defensive rebounding chances, which is 12th in the ACC. The team’s young post players must be able to clear the lane and grab boards to limit second chances.
Efficiency. The Tiger are averaging 111.1 points per 100 possessions, which is 102nd nationally and eighth in the ACC. This number is not terrible, but Clemson is a low-possession team. This means each possession is particularly critical. The team still struggles to share the ball in the half court, ranking 14th in the conference in assists per game with 12.1. Plus, as a team, the Tigers are only shooting 45.1 percent from the floor.
Level of competition. Sure, this has been a nice start for the Tigers, but how will it translate as the opposition gets stronger? This is a team with no seniors, so finding effective leadership in adverse conditions might be a work in progress. Until faced with an uber-talented team like Duke or a more experienced unit like Virginia, fans still may not feel comfortable defining this team.
What It Means: Clemson is probably a little ahead of schedule. The aforementioned lack of seniors led to a sense this season would be rough sledding, but the Tigers have meshed well together. As a whole, the rotation is more dynamic than last year’s group. There is flexibility at Brownell’s disposal in terms of lineup adjustments this season. This is not an NCAA Tournament team right now, but it is a growing, maturing group that plays a style of basketball that could prove difficult for opposing teams in February and March.