|by David Hood|
Heck, it was a lot of those same “coaches” who wanted to fire Dabo Swinney after a 6-7 campaign a few years ago.
Now, it’s the basketball program under fire, and with good reason. Clemson fans expect better. They deserve better. Clemson’s 2012-13 basketball campaign was a disappointment on a lot of levels, both on the men’s and women’s side. Players transferring out, injuries, and mounting losses made Littlejohn Coliseum an empty place for much of this past season.
The men’s team lost 10 of its last 11, sometimes in jaw-dropping and excruciating fashion. The title of the game story on our site following the loss to FSU in the ACC Tournament was ‘Groundhog Day’, a title I thought fitting because we had seen that same game over and over this season.
Clemson jumps out to a lead, endures an offensive drought that lasts multiple minutes, loses the lead, frantically claws back in the game, misses free throws down the stretch and loses by the number of missed free throws.
Public address announcer Dale Gilbert implores the Clemson faithful to “make Littlejohn the toughest place to play in the country” as the team enters the court prior to each home game, but those words have echoed off empty seats for much of the past two seasons. The students aren’t invested in the program, and season ticket holders stayed away as well.
I hung around the ACC Tournament following Clemson’s exit last weekend, just to see if I could get a real sense of the difference between Clemson and teams like Maryland and Boston College, and the answer didn’t come as an epiphany. We all know the difference – those teams have recruited better, have better shooters and more “natural” basketball players than the ones that dot Clemson’s roster.
N.C. State has Scott Wood and Maryland has Dez Wells and even Boston College has freshman Olivier Hanlan, who was the best player on the court when the Eagles played at Clemson a few weeks ago.
When Brad Brownell was hired at Clemson, I was excited about the prospects of adding the kinds of players I would see during the NCAA Tournament, the gym rats who do nothing but hang around the court and shoot all day, and shoot the lights out under the brightest of lights.
Those mid-major teams always seemed to have the kind of players who simply enjoyed playing the game – coach’s sons and lifetime hoopers. The shooters. The underdsized big men. I imagined a team full of Terrence Oglesby’s and Greg Buckner’s. I expected the Tigers to go out and get someone like Hanlan, an under-the-radar guy that would explode on the scene and slay the giants.
And the elephant in the room is the fact that next year, Clemson could improve as a team and still not make any headway. Let’s face it, the ACC was down again this season. Top to bottom, this was not an elite league, not on par with the Big East or the Big Ten, and Clemson still finished 11th. Next season, the conference begins a round of additions that bring in powers like Pitt, Syracuse, Notre Dame and even Louisville. Add those four to Duke and UNC, and you get the picture. Winning will be harder than ever.
So, now to the point of this long-winded column. You think I want Brad Brownell fired, right? I’ve made the case that Clemson basketball is a dumpster fire, and it’s time to arrest the man that started the fire.
Nope, not in the least. I preach patience at this point. Why, after all of the ills I have pointed out?
Because I watched Jaron Blossomgame work out the other day before one of Clemson’s games, and loved the touch on his shot. A man of his size and shooting ability are rare. I say that because I’ve seen Devin Coleman shoot. I know there are capable shooters on the roster, but both Blossomgame and Coleman missed this past season due to injuries. T.J. Sapp left shortly after the season started. Another shooter, gone. Brownell’s hands were tied from an offensive standpoint long before the season started, and the departure of Sapp bound them even more.
Late in games, when Clemson needed a big shot or a playmaker, they were nowhere to be found, certainly not the two seniors; K.J. McDaniels is a great athlete, but he shouldn’t be option number one, not yet; Jordan Roper began to find his stride mid-season, but still battles inconsistency; and Rod Hall, as much as I like his hustle and defensive intensity and gritty play, is not an offensive threat as teams let him dribble around at will, knowing he will never hurt them with the jumper.
Next season, there will be better and more viable options on the court. McDaniels has an entire off-season to hone his game; Roper can get better defensively and work on his consistency; Filer can work on his game and maybe be the guy that can lead the fast break; Nnoko can get better around the basket; perhaps Bernard Sullivan can come out of his two year funk.
To those that say Brownell hasn’t recruited well at Clemson, I say this: Have you been around the ACC, and seen the other venues? Have you been in the other locker rooms and have you seen the practice facilities at schools we used to look down on? Do you realize the facilities gap that Clemson is faced with? Clemson built the football facilities needed to maintain a level playing field, and the recruiting responded. Someone told me that Swinney defended Brownell in an IPTAY meeting earlier this month, and told the crowd that trying to compete in the ACC with Clemson’s current basketball facilities is “like trying to win the Kentucky Derby with a donkey.”
I’ve seen those other facilities. I know they are nice. And when you’re 16 and 17 and 18 years old, it’s natural to go for the bright and shiny. Firing Brownell would simply mean you bring in another coach who not only has to recruit against those other schools with better basketball tradition, but do it behind the eight ball that has facilities written all over it.
Also, Brownell wasn’t helped by Oliver Purnell’s last recruiting class – Milton Jennings, Devin Booker, Donte Hill and Noel Johnson. Jennings and Booker would have been nice pieces if they were a third option in someone’s offense, but Brownell had to lean on them after losing so many good players each of the last two seasons. Hill transferred to Old Dominion and averaged eight points per game; Johnson went to Auburn and averaged less than six points per game for a bad Auburn squad. Neither one would have helped.
Brownell came in late – he was hired on April 13th – and had to try and find players after everyone else had started signing players as early as the previous fall. As a result, he brought in Wright St. recruit Cory Stanton, who quickly proved he wasn’t of ACC caliber and transferred out. That is two recruiting classes – classes that would have been a huge part of the program the last two seasons – that wound up being just Booker and Jennings. Welcome to the world of collateral damage caused by a coaching change. And if you don’t think that having senior players is important, go take a look at what Miami has accomplished this season.
Yes, Clemson finished on a low note, and I truly believe the style of play hurt attendance. Fans would much rather watch a team lose 92-87 than lose 47-43. It’s the world we live in. But Brownell played the only kind of game he could win – a slow down, methodical, defensive approach that simply wore other teams down. At the end of the day, however, he still lacked that shooter.
One more year? Absolutely. I firmly believe in giving a coach an entire recruiting cycle (four years) to prove themselves. Can next year be better? Yes. And maybe, just maybe, adding some more athleticism and some shooters to the mix will make for a better product to watch in what should be an exciting transition year for ACC basketball.
I also saw something that gave me hope following the loss to FSU in the tournament: One senior sat and made excuses, blamed the officiating, and said free throws didn't make a difference; the other sat and muttered one word answers; but one freshman had tears in his eyes (Jordan Roper), took the loss squarely on his young shoulders and blamed his own missed free throws for the loss. He then vowed to work harder and make it right. As one writer put it, sometimes there is addition by subtraction.
He deserves that chance. So does Brownell. Brighter days are ahead.
Patience. Improve the facilities. Give Brownell a chance to get over those first two recruiting classes. Then we will see what happens. Sometimes, the best move is the one you don’t make.
David Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org