CHARLOTTE – The hard-luck Tigers are no more.
Or at least that’s certainly the hope of Clemson men’s basketball coach Brad Brownell this season.
Last season Clemson appeared to have a team with enough talent to snap a five-year NCAA Tournament drought, but those hopes were derailed by a series of close, spirit-draining defeats.
Clemson dropped its Atlantic Coast Conference season opener to eventual national champion North Carolina, 89-86, in overtime, setting a precedent that plagued the Tigers and became a trend as the team progressed through the season.
The Tigers wound up losing six games by three or fewer points and eight games by five or fewer points en route to a 17-16 finish and a first-round exit in the National Invitation Tournament.
Senior forward Donte Grantham says it’s high time for good fortune to smile upon the Tigers again.
“The close losses weighed on us heavy last year, because we knew that we were in every game,” Grantham said Wednesday during the ACC Basketball Media Day in uptown Charlotte. “We were a great team; we just had to figure out a way to close out close games. This year the thing for us will be staying dialed in defensively and knowing that just because we have a lead doesn’t mean we can ease up.”
Grantham and guard Gabe DeVoe are the lone seniors on a roster that could rank as the deepest in Brownell’s tenure. Returning players Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed and Elijah Thomas are proven commodities who showed flashes of brilliance last season. They’ll be joined by six newcomers, including transfers Mark Donnal, who’s 6-foot-9, and 6-8 David Skara, whom Brownell says is the top defender on the team.
Last summer Brownell took his team on a trip to Spain, where the Tigers bonded, practiced and improved for 10 days.
That should pay dividends, as should a heightened commitment to defense. The Tigers boosted their offensive production considerably last season to 74.8 points per game – a high under Brownell. Now the defense must return to past levels for the Tigers to realize their full potential.
“Last year we won some close games early, and all of a sudden we’re 12-2 and we looked like we were well on our way to the tournament,” Brownell said. “Then we hit ACC play and lost a couple of games – missed a free throw against North Carolina, Syracuse we had a defensive error. It wasn’t just one thing – that’s what the issue was.
“Our defense not being as good as it need to be at times helped create more close games because we didn’t defend as well for the full 40 minutes. We allowed teams to get into a rhythm and score. We found ourselves in difficult situations that could end up in losses. We’re trying to address that. We have an offensive-minded group. I’ve got to do a better job of making sure they understand that we’re going to have to win with some defense.”
To that end, expect the Tigers to introduce some new wrinkles, including increasing their pick-up points, pressuring more, playing more players and challenging older players that if they don’t defend they’re going to sit on the bench while young guys get out there and try to wear teams down with their legs.
“We do feel like we have depth,” Brownell said. “If we do those things, hopefully that eliminates some of the close games that we’re in.”
Or at least give the Tigers more of an opportunity to emerge on the positive side of the close games for a change.