As the opponent preview series continues through the ACC slate, today’s piece offers a look at two teams that are facing rebuilding efforts and are unlikely to contend this winter.
Countdown to Tipoff: 15 Days
2016-17 Record: 17-16 (6-12 ACC)
Head Coach: Brad Brownell (entering eighth season)
Key Departures: PF/SF Jaron Blossomgame, SG Avry Holmes, C Sidy Djitte
Key Returnees: PG Shelton Mitchell, SG Marcquise Reed, C/PF Elijah Thomas
Top Recruits (star ratings from 247Sports): 4* PF Aamir Simms, 3* SG A.J. Oliver
The Tigers are coming off a middling season that saw them compete well in nonconference play, only to slide badly once ACC play began. They finished just above .500 for the season and only picked up six conference wins, though their ACC record does not illustrate how close most of those games were; eight of their 12 ACC losses were by six or fewer points (read: two possessions). Clemson was led by forward/wing Jaron Blossomgame, who led the team in points per game (17.7) and total blocks (30) and was second on the team with 6.3 rebounds per game. Three others—guards Shelton Mitchell, Avry Holmes, and Marcquise Reed—put up double-digit points per game, and center Sidy Djitte had 7.7 rebounds per game and was third in the ACC in offensive rebounds per game.
The bad news for Clemson is that Blossomgame, a two-time All-ACC nominee, is no longer around to torment the rest of the conference. He was a four-year starter and had been a versatile and dynamic scoring threat for the Tigers since his sophomore campaign, but now the Tigers will have to find a way to replace him. They’ll also have to replace Djitte and Holmes, plus a couple other reserves. Leading the way in 2016-17 will be Mitchell, a seasoned point guard who will once again be one of the team’s top scoring threats. Reed will take on a starting role in the backcourt, and junior Elijah Thomas, who had a double-double against Tech last season, is primed to take over at center. (Interesting note: all three of those players—Mitchell, Reed, and Thomas—started their careers elsewhere before transferring to Clemson after one season.)
There aren’t any game-changing talents in Clemson’s recruiting class, but there are multiple guys who could contribute right away. The highest-rated signee is four-star forward Aamir Simms, who could theoretically step into Blossomgame’s role but will likely act more as a traditional power forward. Three-star signee Malik William is in a similar position, while guards A.J. Oliver and Clyde Trapp should add depth in the backcourt. Clemson will also get a boost up front from a pair of transfers. Center Mark Donnal, a graduate transfer from Michigan, did not put up huge numbers for the Wolverines but offers an experienced option at center to spell Thomas. David Skara sat out last season after transferring in from Valparaiso, but the 6-foot-8 forward is now eligible and should work his way into the rotation.
As Clemson is one of Tech’s permanent crossover rivals in basketball, the Jackets will face them twice: a Sunday night tilt at home on Jan. 28 and a Saturday afternoon game at Littlejohn Coliseum on Feb. 24. The teams split the series last year, with the home team winning each game by a dozen points. Blossomgame always presented a major matchup problem for Tech, so without him around, things should open up for Josh Pastner’s squad. The best bet will be to work the ball inside to the post. Ben Lammers put up big numbers in both games against Clemson last year (23+ points and 9+ rebounds in both contests), and while Thomas is not the easiest matchup inside, Lammers should have the edge.
2016-17 Record: 19-15 (10-8 ACC)
Head Coach: Jim Boeheim (entering 42nd season)
Key Departures: PF Tyler Lydon, SF Andrew White III, PG John Gillon, PF/C Taurean Thompson
Key Returnees: SG Tyus Battle, PG Frank Howard
Top Recruits (star ratings from 247Sports): 4* SF Marek Dolezaj, 3* SF O’Shae Brissett
Jim Boeheim’s squad followed up their surprising Final Four run in 2015-16 with a winning record in ACC play, but they ended up missing out on the NCAA Tournament and exited the NIT in the second round. The team was anchored by Andrew White III, a graduate transfer wing from Nebraska who averaged 18.5 points per game and scored more than half of his points from beyond the arc; sophomore forward Tyler Lydon, who finished fifth in the ACC with 8.4 rebounds per game; and graduate transfer point guard John Gillon, who had over five assists per game. True freshman forward Taurean Thompson, a four-star recruit, emerged as a contributor on the offensive end.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, all four players are gone. White and Gillon exhausted their eligibility, and Lydon entered the NBA Draft and was taken late in the first round. Thompson, meanwhile, announced in late August—completely out of the blue—that he was leaving the team, and a few days later he signed on with Seton Hall. On top of that, reserve forwards Tyler Roberson and Dajuan Coleman (combined 10.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) were both seniors last season. All of that means Syracuse will enter the 2017-18 campaign having to replace almost their entire rotation.
The one key piece they did bring back was rising sophomore wing Tyus Battle, who was their top-rated signee in 2016. Battle showed some scoring punch as a rookie, putting up 11.3 points per game and finishing in the top 30 in the ACC in Ken Pomeroy’s Offensive Rating stat (for reference, Lammers was ranked No. 58 and Josh Okogie was No. 76). He’ll pair with junior point guard Frank Howard, who started 14 games early last season and had 3.6 assists per game, in a backcourt that may well have to carry the team at times. Syracuse will hope to lean on 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu up front, but the redshirt junior is a major question mark. Chukwu played in 33 games as a freshman at Providence, but that was three years ago; he sat out the 2015-16 campaign after transferring to Syracuse, and seven games into last season, he suffered a torn retina that required multiple eye surgeries to repair it. If healthy, he’s a talented center and one of Syracuse’s few experienced frontcourt players.
The Orangemen didn’t recruit up to their usual standard this offseason, signing a class that ranked No. 39 in the nation according to 247Sports, so there may not be much immediate help from the freshman class. The biggest addition this offseason was graduate transfer guard Geno Thorpe, who had 15.1 points per game at South Florida last year; he can play either backcourt position and should add valuable depth and experience behind Howard and Battle. While there were no impact freshmen in the class, the lack of experience across the roster leaves room for the freshmen to contribute. Wings Marek Dolezaj and O’Shae Brissett could work their way into the rotation, and forward Bourama Sidibe will get a shot at early playing time thanks to the lack of depth up front.
Tech split their two games against Syracuse a year ago, winning in Atlanta 71-65 and then losing badly at the Carrier Dome a few weeks later. This year’s matchup is back at McCamish and looks favorable for the Jackets. It’ll feature a couple interesting matchups, with scoring guards Okogie and Battle going head-to-head and Lammers battling Chukwu in the paint. Syracuse appears weak on the wing outside of Battle, so if Tadric Jackson gets going, Tech has a good chance to make it two straight wins in Atlanta over Boeheim’s squad.