SUNSET — Brad Brownell’s first two Clemson men’s basketball teams have followed a familiar pattern: early-season struggles, followed by significant improvement as the ACC season grinds into February and March.
Two years ago, Brownell guided a depleted roster to the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1998. Last winter, he took a team that lost November games to College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina to a 16-15 overall record and 8-8 ACC mark.
“I hope most of my teams are that way,” Brownell said. “That means we’ve been working with them for five, six months and hopefully they’re getting better – not going the other way.”
This season should be no different. Brownell’s third team features 11 freshmen and sophomores and two seniors – forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Friday, the Tigers will open regular-season practice, and Brownell hopes for steady improvement.
“We have a very difficult schedule, and a lot of guys who are inexperienced,” Brownell said Wednesday before his annual media golf outing at The Reserve. “We’re figuring out where guys are going to play and putting them in positions to make them successful. We better be playing better in February than we are in November and December or it’s going to be a long January and February.”
Booker and Jennings will be the primary focus; Booker is the leading returning scorer at 10.5 points per game, while Jennings is second at 9.7. No other returnee averages more than 3.9 points per game.
“Devin and Book have really had to wait their turn at times,” Brownell said. “They’ve gone through the full gamut of not starting, to being reserves to finally getting to start, to being productive players. They’ve had some really good games at times. Maybe they haven’t been quite as consistent as we’d all like, but I feel good about where they are. I know they’ve had really good summers, a good start to the fall, know how excited they are about their senior seasons. I hope it really goes well for them.”
Brownell says the Tigers are “starting over” in terms of scoring.
“It’s different in nature in that my first year we had a perimeter player and a post player, and really good balance, and Jerai (Grant) emerged into that situation,” he said. “Last year Andre (Young) and Tanner (Smith) were our two most experienced and comfortable confident players. This year it’s two post players.”
Replacing Young at point will be sophomore Rod Hall and freshmen Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper; Brownell said competition has been intense, and he expects all three to play, but if one player emerges “maybe he’ll play more.”
Sophomores K.J. McDaniels and T.J. Sapp will compete at the other guard position. McDaniels possesses excellent athleticism and finished the season very strong; Sapp began the year strong but slumped through ACC play.
“He can make plays you just can’t coach,” Brownell said of McDaniels. “What he’s got to get better at he’s got to understand how to be a more complete player. He’s got to just make the simple plays. His shot has to get better and his defense has to get better.”
For Clemson to thrive, though, Booker and Jennings must carry the load and provide a solid example for their younger teammates.
“The challenge for both Book and Milt is to be consistent,” Brownell said. “Consistent in your work ethic every day, consistent in your attitude, consistent in your performance. Those guys have been good in all those areas and at times they’ve struggled a little bit.”
Brownell’s motion offense can be difficult to pick up at times for younger players, and he said he’ll simplify it somewhat this season due to the Tigers’ extreme youth.
“We’ll start with basic basketball and try to get good at it, so guys aren’t thinking so much we can’t play,” he said. “We want them to be able to play hard, understand what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to simplify things and as the year goes on we’ll try and add more to it to give us a little more than a vanilla package.”
For better or worse, this is largely Brownell’s roster now, a notion he bristled at Wednesday.
“People last year were criticizing me, people you wouldn’t expect, that I’m not playing the guys I recruited more. That makes no sense to me, that because I recruited them, I’m going to play them more than the guys that are here,” he said. “That rubs me the wrong way. When you take over a job those guys are your players. You coach them the best you can, treat them the right way. They’re not better, no more special, no worse.”
What they are is young.
“I’d much rather have four seniors and three juniors, you know who’s where, and if you have freshmen coming in they’re playing six minutes a game if they’re lucky,” Brownell said. “This isn’t an ideal third year from that standpoint but that said I’m excited about it too.”