Ahead of tonight’s matchup, I spoke with Calvin Craft from Shakin The Southland to get an insider perspective on the Clemson basketball program.
Q: Clemson looked great in non-conference play, but have obviously struggled to start ACC play. What factors have led to this?
A: The number one factor in Clemson's ACC struggles has been its defense. Number two has been rebounding. The two go hand in hand a great deal because when Clemson breaks down on the perimeter, the bigs have to help and then are not in good rebounding position. Brad Brownell had reached a bit of a speed bump with the program in that his tough, defensive minded focus had the Tigers recruiting some guys who could guard but were way behind in terms of offensive ability. He shifted his recruiting approach a bit to getting transfers along with more offensively capable players. Clemson is certainly more capable on offense this year as any during Brownell's tenure, but the defense has been slow to catch up. The ACC is just too good to not guard at least adequately and hope to win. The Tigers were much better against Pitt last time out, but frankly Pitt doesn't offer the inside post threat that a team like GT presents.
Q: Jaron Blossomgame has had plenty of big games against Tech in the past and is having a great senior season. How do fans feel about the trajectory of the program once he is gone?
A: Jaron has been an amazing player, certainly among the best in Clemson history, and replacing him will be a very difficult task. Donte Grantham came in very highly regarded but has only been an adequate player with spurts of brilliance and some troubling stretches of being a non factor. Eli Thomas, Shelton Mitchell, and Marquise Reed have all flashed the ability that made Tiger fans excited for their move to the program, but none have been anywhere as consistent as Blossomgame as a scorer. Brownell has much better facilities and school commitment and the hope is recruiting will improve, but this year was the year to strike in terms of making the NCAA tourney and the team has a lot of work to do in that regard.
Q: Piggybacking off the last question, how do the fans currently feel about Head Coach Brad Brownell? Six years removed from his lone NCAA tournament appearance, is it safe to say he's on the hot seat?
A: Many fans, at least that frequent our blog, have grown weary of Brownell. He had a tough act to follow in Oliver Purnell who had the program making the NCAA every year at the end of his run. The style of play has been harder for the casual fan to get behind, as Clemson has been a poor man's Virginia for most of Brad's run. However, the administration has shown support for Brownell who had to deal with the Littlejohn renovation and all kinds of infrastructure issues when he took over. I personally think it would take a disastrous conclusion to this season for there to be enough outcry to fire him. Of course, January was a terrible month with just one win so more of that could do it. He was really hurt by the early departure of K.J. McDaniels who most certainly would have led the team to the NCAA tourney his senior season had he returned. Had that happened, the narrative would be much different. He really needs to make the NCAA this year to take the pressure off of 2017-2018 which would be a major hot seat season otherwise. I feel Brad is a good coach, but I'm not sure he is a good fit for Clemson.
Q: The renovations to Littlejohn Coliseum look incredible. How do the fans like the new arena and what's the atmosphere like?
A: The renovations were sorely needed and it has really enhanced the game experience, but as Duke has proven for years, the product on the court is really the biggest factor. Clemson has shown it will get behind a winner in basketball but fans are not going to support it as much when it is average or below average to the degree football enjoys. There needs to be more done to get students back in the numbers that Purnell saw during his time. The atmosphere for the UNC game was pretty good, but I don't think it approached what we saw when Clemson beat the brakes off of Duke with Trevor Booker and company. The crowd for the VT game was disappointing, as was the effort and result of the game.
Q: Lastly, congrats on the national championship! Has that distracted at all from the basketball team or are Clemson fans still showing full support?
A: The National Title has been an amazing experience for all Clemson fans. Brad Brownell should certainly be thankful as most Tiger fans are riding the high and not allowing basketball to ruin the good vibes. If he can turn it around in February, January will be like a distant memory in terms of hoops, so it could really work to his advantage. Of course, Clemson had a great January last year and then struggled down the stretch, so maybe they will flip the script.