Photo via Robert Willett
When the Atlantic Coastal Conference released their men’s basketball preseason poll for the 2020-21 season, the usual suspects were picked to finish at the top. The Virginia’s, Duke’s, Florida State’s, North Carolina’s and even Louisville’s of the world were all tabbed to be top dogs in the conference, as all five teams received first-place votes.
On the flip side, reasonable culprits were tallied to finish near the bottom. Rebuilding programs, such as Wake Forest and Boston College, were the primary candidates for these bottom-of-the-barrel positions. However, even other teams, including Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, were also slated to finish in the bottom-half due to their talent discrepancy compared to the usual blue bloods.
Then, there were the Clemson Tigers.
Now, Clemson has not been the epitome of a backwater program when discussing success on the basketball court. When they prowled to a Sweet 16 run during the 2017-18 season, the Tigers possessed a slew of experienced players, including seniors Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham, along with redshirt juniors Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed. While all four players averaged 12 or more points that season, the team’s bread and butter came from their defense, which ranked seventh in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency (92.6), which looks at how many points an adjusted opponent scored per 100 possessions. When coupled with the team’s greed for collecting a slew of blocks every game (Clemson’s 4.84 blocks per game during the 2017-18 season ranked 29th among 351 Division I schools), it should have come to no one’s surprise when the roster was able to hold off New Mexico State in the Round of 64 and held Auburn to 25.8% shooting in the Round of 32.
While that team certainly found success, the 2020-21 team, to pollsters, lacked the firepower to reinforce a still capable defensive front. During the 2019-20 season, only two players (Aamir Simms and Tevin Mack) averaged more than 10 points per game (13.0 and 12.2, respectively).
No matter, though.
While the 2020-21 team, on the surface, still might not possess the scoring (their 68.3 points per game are tied for 255thamong 345 Division I schools), it certainly possesses the defense. In terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, the Tigers’ 86.8 rating ranks first among all Division I teams heading into Jan. 15 action. This was not an effect of playing poor competition every game, either when the Tigers played the 18th-ranked Florida State Seminoles on Dec. 29, for instance, the team held a fully capable offense to 41.9% shooting from the field (26-62) and 28.1% shooting from beyond the arc (9-32).
The 77-67 victory against the Seminoles two-plus weeks ago, however, has only been the tip of the iceberg for the team. After all, Clemson is collectively 5-0 at home and has taken a tip out the 2017-18 playbook, as the current squad, led by upper-class athletes including Simms, have propelled the team to a Basketball Power Index (BPI) ranking of 24. This suggests that the team, with its experienced players, is at least a top 25 program in regard to how good the team can be moving forward.
While polling pundits might not be completely enamored by Clemson’s scoring, they should be by their defense and experience.
The formula worked several years ago, and it is working again so far.