CLEMSON — Knowing full well his team was structured on a group effort instead of the heroics of one, Clemson men’s basketball coach Brad Brownell is still scratching his head.
Sixteen games into this regular season, with 14 more left on the schedule, the Tigers have received solid if not unspectacular numbers from the five starters: guards Rod Hall and Damarcus Harris, forward Jaron Blossomgame and Donte Grantham and center Landry Nnoko.
However, they’ve received little help from the reserves. The Tigers’ bench is averaging a paltry 12.4 points per game. For comparison, Clemson’s five starters all range between 8 and 14 points a night, meaning the bench is essentially a sixth man and little else.
“You know, I don’t have an answer for that,” Brownell said, frowning at the mention of his second unit. “Our bench has to play consistently better for us to win these games.”
Even last year, when Clemson (9-7, 1-3 ACC) was making its eventual run to 23 wins and an NIT berth, star forward K.J. McDaniels rarely received consistent support from the role players. Every now and again, Hall or Harrison or Nnoko or Jordan Roper would chip in double digits, but mostly it was McDaniels leading the way.
Now in 2014-15, with no one on par with McDaniels’ scoring ability, the all-hands-on-deck approach has wavered.
“We don’t have that guy that’s going to go get us 20, sometimes 25 or 30 like K.J. did,” Brownell said. “I just don’t see that happening. We haven’t played as well late in games, we’ve had a lead or whatever, and I attribute that to our bench hasn’t played as well and our starters get worn down.”
Said Nnoko: “At times, I feel like we look kind of tired out there. But it’s up to us to rally and make a better play. We’ve just got to find a way to play with energy.”
Actually, Clemson’s bench has improved a bit since the start of ACC play. Case in point: the catalyst to a 71-62 triumph at Pittsburgh last Saturday was a 23-7 edge in bench points, led by a couple of early threes from Roper and effective inside play from forward Sidy Djitte and Josh Smith.
However, when it comes to reserves’ points, the Tigers have been outscored in 11 of 16 games. Clemson is 4-1 when it wins the bench scoring battle, and 5-6 when it loses.
“When we get that shot in the arm from somebody else, it energizes our team. That’s what happened at Pittsburgh,” Brownell said. “When we don’t get it, it just feels like more stress on those starters, and sometimes they’re just not good enough to overcome that.”
Syracuse (13-4, 4-0) comes calling to Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday, the Orange’s first visit to Clemson since the 2007 NIT quarterfinals.
Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim’s team scuffled in non-conference defeats to California, Michigan, St. John’s and Villanova, but Syracuse has won its past seven games and enters the weekend the ACC’s only undefeated league team besides No. 2-ranked Virginia.
Brownell knows it’ll take sharp shooting against Syracuse’s patented zone defense to knock off the Orange. Clemson ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring (63.3 points) and shooting (41.7 percent.)
Which means a surprise emergence along the lines of the Pitt upset would be welcomed from Roper, Djitte, Smith or anyone else.
“Those guys need some confidence, and I don’t know how else to give it to them,” Brownell said. “They gotta make plays.”