CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Brad Brownell believes he’s finally got the depth for the Tigers to bounce back from their first losing season in nine years.
The Tigers lost 10 of their final 11 games on the way to a 13-18 finish, which was Brownell’s worst showing ever in 10 seasons as a college head coach at UNC Wilmington, Wright State and the Tigers.
Brownell said last year’s team was hit by injuries to guard Devin Coleman and forwards K.J. McDaniels and Jaron Blossomgame and had to rely on a pair of seniors in Devin Booker and Milt Jennings to carry them much of the year – and that proved too much during Atlantic Coast Conference season.
Even without Booker and Jennings, Brownell sees more bodies on the bench to weather the storm in the supersized, 15-team ACC that adds Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse this season.
“The strength of our team in my mind in October is depth,” Brownell said Wednesday. “I think we have 10 guys that can play. I don’t know if our one, two and three best players are better than other teams’ one, two and three best players. But I’m optimistic our seven, eight, nine and ten are going to be better. We’re not going to have a drop off.”
It’s taken some time for Brownell to build up to that during his first three seasons. He and the Tigers made the NCAA Tournament his debut season in 2010-11 and went 8-8 in the ACC a year later with a team featuring upperclassmen brought in by his predecessor Oliver Purnell.
Things bottomed out last winter as the Tigers struggled to score points, averaging an ACC worst 61.5 points a game. A lot of that, Brownell said, was Clemson having to slow things down to stay with stronger opponents like Miami and North Carolina. There were few players on the bench experienced or talented enough to spell Booker and Jennings, meaning it was easier to pack the post and wait for those two to tire. And if Booker or Jennings was off early on, that typically spelled doom for the Tigers.
This season, Brownell expects more players who will push each other to improve. He says he’ll be able to look to the bench and confidently sub people in and out, knowing the production won’t fall off.
That will be especially true in the backcourt, which will be led by junior point guard and former Laney star Rod Hall, Jordan Roper and Coleman, who was out all last season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered during the summer of 2012.
Hall had 110 assists, about a third of Clemson’s team total last year, while Roper led the club with 41 3-pointers. Coleman had picked up his play at the end of the 2011-12 season and had become one of the Tigers more consistent performers before getting hurt.
The Tigers will lean heavily on forward McDaniels, a junior who was second on the team with 10.2 points a game and has the explosive hops that brought down the Littlejohn Coliseum house several times last fall. McDaniels, though, was bothered by ankle problems at times last season.
Blossomgame, a 6-foot-7 forward considered Brownell’s top recruit before missing all last year, is back healthy and ready to go. Brownell said he’ll have to make sure not to overwork Blossomgame this preseason as he returns from a compound fracture in his left leg.
Clemson’s post position also picked up some depth with 6-10 forward Ibrahim Djambo, a junior college transfer; and Sidy Djitte, a 6-10 freshman. Both have shown a toughness early on that Brownell thinks will help the Tigers this season.
Brownell said the Tigers, who’ve entered the season without a top scorer returning every year of his tenure, will certainly miss the play of Booker and Jennings, who combined to average 23 points and 14 rebounds a season ago. Brownell said a four-game exhibition tour of Italy in August helped bond the team, which does not have a senior and features just two players in Hall and McDaniels who’ve been on court for the Tigers for more than one year.
“I feel like we’ve got pieces to work with,” he said. “I like our youthful exuberance.”