CLEMSON — You knew this would be a learning experience.
Clemson and Brad Brownell just hoped it wouldn’t be so painful.
As the Tigers finish up first-semester final exams, their youthful group has taken its lumps. Entering Saturday's 4:30 p.m. home game against Winthrop (4-6), Clemson is 4-4, including losses to in-state foes College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina.
Those defeats have come by a grand total of 23 points – with last week’s 63-47 loss at Arizona the only loss greater than three points.
“We’re really close, but at the same time, we’ve learned too many lessons this year,” senior guard/forward Tanner Smith said. “At some point we need to take the lessons we learned and put them into action.”
They’ll have ample opportunity to do so now. After playing just five games over a 25-day span, Saturday begins a stretch which will see Clemson play five games in nine days – after hosting Alabama State Monday night, the Tigers will leave immediately for the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hi., where they’ll play Dec. 22-25.
“I’ll be interested to see how guys respond after being in finals this week,” Brownell said. “We’ve done fairly well in terms of practice, guys have tried to be as locked in as they can with a lot going on. It’ll be interesting to see how they play.”
Over the past seven days, the Tigers had a series of meetings – some coach-organized, some player-organized – designed to address issues and build confidence.
“The main thing is, everyone needs to keep doing their job, working hard and stay together as a team,” Smith said. “You can easily get frustrated when you’re not playing as well as you want to. We have a great team chemistry. We can’t turn against each other and think one of us isn’t capable of doing what our job is, and we have trust in our team, our teammates, the coaching staff.
“ This week at practice has been good, we’ve been going hard, really getting after each other, getting that competitive edge for these next games we’re going to definitely need.”
There are no drastic fixes; Brownell and his team believe they’re close to success. Smith pointed to the finish at Arizona; the Tigers were within seven points with 4:30 remaining, but the Wildcats responded with a 6-0 run to take control.
“We need to do everything a little better,” Smith said. "We need to screen a little better. We need to play defense a little better. We need to run our offense a little better. There’s nothing we really need to improve a great deal. We’re one or two possessions away from being 7-1, 8-0.”
Brownell knows he must get better play from junior forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Neither have been consistent enough inside, although they average 19 points and 12.4 rebounds per game between them.
He knew their development would be, in his words, “a process,” but it needs to move more quickly.
“I think they have to finish more,” Brownell said.” At times they’ve got to find easier baskets on their own – a transition bucket where they outrun people and get a layup or get an offensive rebound and put it in, things that happen outside the offense.
“A guy that scores 14, 15 points in a game will have a couple free throws on his own, three, four baskets outside the offense. They’re not getting enough other things. They’re averaging nine, 10 points per game, and need to be averaging 15.”
Winthrop enters today on a two-game winning streak. The Eagles lost 69-48 to Virginia and 62-60 to Gardner-Webb, a team Clemson beat 65-44 in its opener. They’re led by senior guards Andre Jones (19.4 ppg) and Reggie Middleton (12.4 ppg).
“They have very talented guards,” Brownell said. “Middleton and Jones can really score. We’re going to have to do a tremendous job of zeroing in on them and making it difficult.”
It’ll also be an opportunity for the Tigers’ freshmen to show what they’ve learned over the last two weeks with heavy practice experience and limited game time.
Arizona marked the first time this season that one of the five freshmen wasn’t in the starting lineup.
“I do think they’re a little more confident with the system, there are less new things they’re exposed to,” Brownell said. “Early on they were exposed to so many new things, defensive rules, game plans, offensive schemes.
“Now day-to-day, they’re mastering things, getting comfortable, making some improvement. They’ll have a better chance to be successful and hopefully will make some improvement over the next couple weeks.”