CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If Clemson men’s basketball hosts a Senior Night on March 8 when Pittsburgh represents the season’s final visitor to Littlejohn Coliseum, only the managers and cheerleaders will be honored.
That’s the youth head coach Brad Brownell is equal parts encouraged and challenged by entering his fourth season leading the Tigers, who were projected to finish 14th in the new-look, 15-team ACC standings by the media day voters Wednesday at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte.
Only Virginia Tech was tabbed to have more struggles than Clemson (13-18, 5-13 ACC in 2012-13), and while there’s some reasons for optimism, Brownell surveys his team from time to time and can tell there’s not a single senior on the roster.
“In practices thus far, there are times when there’s just not quite as much urgency as there needs to be,” Brownell said. “Guys that are older and this is their last year, I think they kind of sometimes see the sand rolling out of the glass a little bit. They’re much quicker to make corrections, they’re much quicker to get upset.”
So far on a summer trip to Italy including four exhibition games, and preseason practices, Brownell’s noticing a concerning trend.
“Our guys don’t get upset too much,” Brownell said. “I feel like I’m the guy who kind of has to do that for them, and make them understand, hey, we can’t keep making these kind of mistakes. We have to correct these mistakes quicker. It’s a little frustrating. It’s a little challenging.”
Even in this age of one-and-dones, more than half the league returns at least one senior starter, and every other ACC squad has no less than a walk-on who can stride across the court with his family on Senior Night in a few months.
So Clemson’s search for leadership continues, and Brownell is coaxing it out of leading returning scorer K.J. McDaniels and glue guy Rod Hall, both juniors and the team’s only players entering their third year in the program along with Brownell.
“I mean, it’s part of what you understand when you have a younger team,” Brownell said. “They really need to be led by each other to be really, really good. We’re still developing that. K.J. and Rod are still kind of developing that. They’re not really there, in all honesty.
“(2013 seniors) Devin (Booker) and Milt (Jennings) weren’t exactly those kind of leaders. So they haven’t really seen it as much since Tanner Smith. It’s part of a process. There’s a little bit of a time when I feel like they’re still young.”
Indeed, Brownell hopes there comes a point this season when he doesn’t have to rant and scream to get the Tigers’ attention, be it in practice or during a first-half timeout.
“It’s just more effective when the players do it for themselves. That’s when you’re at a high level of trust and sacrifice,” Brownell said. “ When the coaches are doing it, it’s part of our job. But when you get past that point, and players start doing it with themselves, that’s when your best teams usually happen. The coach then keeps them in the right direction; you coach the Xs-and-Os, you’re not dealing with all of the other things. The players can handle some of those other things on their own.”
Of course, the bright side of Clemson’s roster setup is the potential to keep the entire core around for two full seasons, if it can avoid attrition before 2014-15. Still, this isn’t considered a throwaway season.
“We don’t talk about rebuilding,” Brownell said. “What’s natural is you feel like you have more time. If things aren’t going all the way fine, well, I got next year. Seniors don’t have that. It’s, let’s get this figured out now. And it becomes the most important thing in your life. When it becomes that part of what you’re thinking about all the time, that’s when you have your best teams.”
The Tigers tasted success in Brownell’s first crack at the ACC, finishing tied for fourth and winning a game in the NCAA tournament. So he’s not panicking, despite dropping to seventh in 2011-12 and 11th in 2012-13, and now expected to keep falling further from the top with the arrival of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
“I think what we’re doing is fine,” Brownell said. “The way we played last year, we couldn’t score, we couldn’t shoot at all, and we were in a lot of games. We took the ACC champion to the last minute, had a great chance to win. Had several close games. We defended at a very high level. So we don’t have to drastically change what we’re doing, but we have to do it better with guys playing with a lot of confidence.”
Brownell recalls that Smith-led tournament team as one that carried itself like a winner. He feels the talent is in place to succeed now, but the mindset has to match the skill set.
“They were very comfortable being in the league, they were very comfortable with their positions and making plays,” Brownell said, of the 2010 Tigers. “That part of it was all done. So they played at a very high level. It was just embracing a new system.”
“Last year and this year, we’re still putting puzzle pieces together to figure it all out.”