CHARLOTTE — Before every basketball season, players and coaches from the 15 ACC teams gather for media day, where they offer platitudes about fresh starts and new beginnings. Against the backdrop of bright lights, cameras and microphones, optimism is omnipresent. Vulnerability is not.
And yet Tuesday, in speaking of Clemson's depth from a podium in the Charlotte Marriott City Center, coach Brad Brownell let his guard down.
"It's a major concern," Brownell said. "It's scary as a coach this time of year, because you want to be practicing. And we have. But it's been a challenge."
Brownell is confident in the Tigers' culture, sure. But as the regular season approaches with a Nov. 5 opener against Virginia Tech, Brownell is being realistic.
Clemson has seven returning players from last season, but only one was a starter. Two veterans — junior guard Clyde Trapp and redshirt senior foward Jonathan Baehre — have not yet been cleared to play after suffering torn ACLs. And the Tigers are still awaiting to hear from the NCAA on the status of incoming transfers forward Khavon Moore (Texas Tech) and guard Nick Honor (Fordham) for this season. Sophomore center Trey Jemison recently sustained a concussion.
So, yes, Brownell on Tuesday expressed excitement for his team, like the rest of the coaches in attendance. But he also preached patience.
"We don't have as many bodies as we'd like," he said. "So our practices are going to take a little different turn here for a couple weeks."
That means tamping down on some of the physicality. Things have still been plenty competitive at practice, Brownell said, but he's also been more mindful of managing his players' workloads.
"Every practice doesn't need to be a contact practice," he said. "Maybe not letting it get quite as physical and as wild as some drills could get when there's no officiating. Maybe officiating a little bit more on some things."
Sophomore guard John Newman III echoed that sentiment. Newman, who mostly came off the bench last season, noted that the Tigers have been focusing more on plyometrics, agility exercises and lateral movements, given the team's difference in size from last season.
"We're not necessarily throwing a bunch of weight on our backs and lifting a bunch of weight," he said. "We're kind of smaller this year, so we need to be elusive. We don't need to be big bulky guys. We don't need to look like football players."
There are plenty of those walking around campus, anyway. The start of the Tigers' season has been overshadowed by Clemson's football team, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation entering a Week 7 matchup against Florida State and is coming off its second national title in three seasons.
Brownell's team, meanwhile, aims to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season. The Tigers finished with a 20-14 record in 2018-19, falling in the second rounds of both the ACC Tournament and the NIT.
Aamir Simms is the lone returning starter from that team, which was often plagued by late-game mistakes; the Tigers lost three ACC games by two or fewer points.
It will be those little things that make the difference again in 2019-20, Simms said. The junior forward averaged 8.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, and Brownell expects those numbers to improve.
"He's going to take more shots. He's going to play even more minutes. He's going to have the ball in his hands in more scenarios," Brownell said.
Simms is focused on being more of a leader, too. He remembers how it felt to advance to the Sweet 16 as a freshman, and he wants the team to build off of last season's postseason disappointment. Monday night, in his Charlotte hotel room with Newman, he told stories about the team's run two seasons ago.
"It was a great experience I'll never forget," Simms said. "And then to have that last year, kind of a humbling experience, it's like a pain you use to drive you."