EXCLUSIVE: Clemson Hoops Programs Both Starting Fresh
SENECA, SC — Only one of Clemson’s basketball programs has a new coach at the helm, but both feel like they are starting fresh heading into the 2013-14 season.
New women’s head coach Audra Smith and men’s counterpart Brad Brownell met with the media Wednesday morning at Cross Creek Plantation to preview their upcoming seasons.
The Lady Tigers opened preseason practice that afternoon, while the men’s squad had practiced for the first time Sunday.
Brownell is entering his fourth season at Clemson and returns nine lettermen from last year’s squad, but said this year’s team has an entirely different feel with the departure of senior stalwarts Devin Booker and Milton Jennings.
Without a rising senior class to replace them, the Tigers will look to five juniors — only two of whom, point guard Rod Hall and swingman K.J. McDaniels, have been significant contributors for two seasons — for leadership.
“It feels different with our guys, maybe because we’re so young and there aren’t that many guys who have been through it so much,” Brownell said. “And it’s not just me, I can tell from our players it feels different. We’re going to miss Milton and Devin … but having said that, I do feel we have some guys that have been through some things and we have kind of a youthful exuberance where they are ready and excited to play and anxious to learn new things and play together and challenge each other, and that part of it is what’s fun for me as a coach.”
The Tigers finished 13-18 a year ago and saw their season end in the first round of the ACC Tournament, but with three starters back — Hall, McDaniels and shooting guard Damarcus Harrison — along with a slew of significant contributors, there is reason for Brownell to be optimistic they can improve greatly upon that mark.
“I think the strength of our team in my mind, in October, is depth,” Brownell said. “I think that 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 that our seven, eight, nine and 10 are going to be better.”
McDaniels will be looked upon to step into a starring role this season after he made drastic strides as a sophomore last season — raising his scoring average 7 points per game from his freshman year to a 10.9 average in 2012.
The high-flying junior is the Tigers’ leading returning scorer, rebounder and shot blocker.
“He’s a highlight reel,” Brownell said. “We’ve all seen how he comes in and makes these flying blocks and dunks and impacts the game and changes momentum, but he’s really worked hard. I thought he made nice improvement in his shooting last year; he’s made even more this year. And now he’s trying to become even a better ball-handler and decision-maker. I think he’s ready to make another step as a player.”
With Booker and Jennings both playing more than 29 minutes per game last season, an opportunity clearly exists for players to seize a significant chunk of playing time at their positions — center and power forward, respectively.
The Tigers have two returning big men, Landry Nnoko and Josh Smith, and 6-foot-10 freshman Sidy Djitte and 6-foot-10 JUCO Ibrahim Djambo have joined the program. Also in the mix at the power forward spot is redshirt freshman Jaron Blossomgame, who sat out all of last season after breaking his leg as a senior in high school.
“I think our post players are better than people think,” Brownell said.
Like Blossomgame, redshirt sophomore Devin Coleman is also back after sitting out last season with a torn Achilles.
With Coleman’s return, Clemson has a cadre of backcourt players with wide-ranging skill sets beyond Hall and Harrison that also includes Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper.
With that, Brownell believes his team has the pieces that it needs to be competitive against an increasingly difficult ACC schedule.
“I think we can play 10 guys in games and try to wear teams out,” he said. “Who starts, who comes off the bench, how the minutes go, it’s too early to tell all that, but the one thing I like about our team is there is going to be competition for positions. The competition that you have is critical for success … and I think this year we have more balance, more depth, and we have a better chance of challenging our players individually because of that.”
For the Lady Tigers, Smith will also have a wealth of depth at her disposal, as all five starters and all nine letterwinners return from a year ago.
The Clemson women also added three incoming freshmen and redshirt sophomore Aneesah Daniels, who sat out last season after transferring, into the mix.
The team finished 9-21 a year ago, and Smith was hired in April to turn around a program that has a proud history, but has suffered through nine straight losing seasons.
“They want to win, and we have to show them how,” she said. “So, it’s been a process of changing the culture, changing their mentality and making them understand how we can get that done. And we’re going to get that done. They’re tired of losing. They’re tired of being cellar-dwellers, and we’ve all been very encouraging as a staff to let them know that we can win.”
The Lady Tigers are headlined by junior wing Nikki Dixon, who has led the team in both scoring and steals each of the last two seasons.
“Nikki really doesn’t know how good she can be,” Smith said. “She could really be one of the best players ever to play here. I think everybody on this staff has had a conversation with her about that and the fact that she has another gear that she doesn’t realize she has.”
Dixon is one of the five returning starters that helped lead the Lady Tigers to their most wins in ACC play (5) since the 2004 season.
Smith said the fact the squad returns virtually intact has helped ease the transition to a new coaching staff, and she pointed to Dixon, wing Kelly Gramlich and post player Quinyotta Pettaway, as well as point guard Chelsea Lindsey, as players who had taken the onus of leadership.
“Quinyotta is not very vocal, but she leads by example,” Smith said. “She works very, very hard. Nikki’s personality just permeates with the rest of the team. Kelly’s hard work and practicality about everything that she does, and the fact that (she has the attitude of), ‘I may not be the quickest, most athletic player out here, but I’m going to give you everything that I have and I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can.’
“And I’d be remiss not to mention Chelsea Lindsey, who has been tremendous. She has been like a sponge and absorbed everything in terms of what we’re trying to teach her about being a point guard in the ACC and the things we’re going to need her to do. … So, those kids have really stepped up to the plate and have really been helpful for us being a new staff in terms of providing a lot of leadership.”
In her previous post as the head coach at UAB, Smith’s teams hung their hats on the defensive end of the floor.
The Blazers finished in the top 50 in the nation in scoring defense each of the last three years, and Smith said she planned to instill a similar approach at Clemson.
“We’re going to play hard, and we’re going to compete,” she said. “Those are things that I feel like you don’t have to have a lot of skill or talent or athleticism to do. Everybody can play hard, compete, and defend and rebound. Defense and rebounding is all about heart. They are all about will.”
On the offensive end, where the Lady Tigers shot just 37 percent from the floor last season, Smith admitted there was room for improvement, but said she wasn’t concerned that it would come.
“What we have right now in terms of players, we have players that can create their own shot,” Smith said. “Nikki can create her own shot. Chelsea can create her own shot. We can run some things to isolate Quinyotta in the post. We have a couple of our freshmen who can create their own shot. So, offensively, I’m not really worried because we’ll have some things in place where we’ll be able to get some shots. Now, making them is another thing. But we’ll be able to get plenty of shots. The key is making the shots.”