For the first time since 2011, the Clemson Tigers will have a date in the big dance. After multiple years where Coach Brad Brownell’s teams were competitive but not able to get positive results. They have finally gotten back on the winning side of things and will return to the NCAA Tournament. This Tigers team is built on its senior leadership and a strong defense. They are currently ranked 18th in the country, and sit at 22-8 overall and 11-7 in the ultra-competitive ACC. Clemson finished fourth in the conference and will begin the ACC tournament on Friday after a double bye. After starting the season on the hot seat, Coach Brownell has his team playing at its highest level in quite a while.
The Tigers have always had a tough hard-nosed defensive approach under Coach Brownell. This season they have played very connected and organized on that end and have suffocated opponents at times. They allowed only 65 points per game, which was good for 25th in the nation. The Tigers have only allowed teams to shoot 41% from the floor. Their athleticism and aggression on the perimeter allow them to switch on defense, and having three veteran guards means they are rarely out of position. The pressure applied by guards is what spearheads the defense, but they also have a rim protector in the paint. Center Elijah Thomas is blocking around two and a half shots each game. The Tigers only force 12.2 turnovers a contest, but they make you work hard for every point you get.
Coach Brownell’s team is loaded with experience in the back-court. Each of their top three guards are in at least their third year, and they all average double figures. The balanced scoring means that even if one guy is having an off night, the other two guards can usually pick up the slack. Marcquise Reed leads the Tigers with 16.3 points per game. He is a solid three-point shooter, at 38%, but he is most effective driving to the basket. Reed is a strong finisher when slashing to the rim, and also makes 86% of his free throws. Gabe DeVoe is the Clemson Tigers most prolific deep threat, making 40% of his threes, and pouring in 13 points a night. He has scored in double figures 21 times this season and has five 20 point games.
The luxury of multiple ball handlers means that when they get a defensive stop, the Tigers have different options to run the fast break. Clemson likes to try and score early in a possession with a runout, before bringing the ball out to use a more patient approach. Point guard Shelton Mitchell is the catalyst for this Clemson Tigers team. He averages 11.4 points and 3.7 assists per game. While his numbers may not jump out at you, his impact goes beyond the numbers. His ball pressure on defense is the key to their performance on that end of the court. Mitchell also runs the offense, he is adept and driving and can stretch the defense effectively. Like Reed, he is a capable finisher on drives and shoots 84% from the free throw line. The Tigers lost both games he missed in mid-February and scored less than 60 points in each game.
The Clemson Tigers’ season took a major hit when senior forward Donte Grantham was lost for the year with an injury. He was averaging 14.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He could score in the paint and from the outside. Grantham’s size and varied offensive skill made him Clemson’s best option to create a mismatch. In his absence, freshman Aamir Simms took Grantham’s place in the lineup. He has shown flashes of talent, but like most young players is still inconsistent.
Big man Elijah Thomas has stepped his game up since losing his front-court partner. For the season he is averaging 10.7 points and 7.8 rebounds to go along with the defensive presence he provides. Thomas has scored in double figures seven times since Grantham went down, including three double-doubles. The Tigers’ potent guard play has remained a constant all season, so Thomas will need to continue to balance that with scoring in the paint.
A fourth-place finish in the ACC is the best of the Brad Brownell era. This team is connected and relentless on defense and balanced on offense. Those two factors along with good guard play are crucial for success in March. With their ability to get points from multiple positions and defend with an aggressive stubbornness, the Clemson Tigers could make some definite noise in the postseason.