Last night, Clemson lost 68-61 on senior night to the Boston College Eagles. For the honored seniors, Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, it has been a bumpy four years.
Clemson’s 2009 recruiting class featured three highly touted prospects. Four-star forwards Devin Booker and Noel Johnson joined five-star Milton Jennings. They added much-needed size to the Tigers, with the impending departure of Devin’s brother Trevor looming. The 2010 Tigers finished 21-11, losing to Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, Oliver Purnell relinquished coaching duties at Clemson that offseason, taking the head coaching job at DePaul. Before Purnell, Clemson had seven NCAA Tournament appearances in program history. Under Purnell, the Tigers had reached three consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Brad Brownell was hired to fill the vacancy. Previously a head coach at UNC-Wilmington and Wright State, Brownell had never posted a losing conference or overall record during his time at those two schools. In Brownell’s first season at Clemson, the Tigers won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1997.
Since then, there has not been nearly as much joy in Clemson. Last season, the Tigers were 16-15 (8-8 ACC) and bounced in the first round of the ACC Tournament, failing to make any postseason tournament for the first time since 2004. This season, Clemson sits at 13-16 overall, including a 5-12 mark in ACC play,
During the 2010-11 season, Noel Johnson left Clemson, ultimately transferring to Auburn. Johnson’s father said Clemson’s deliberate pace under Brownell was not a good fit for Johnson. Johnson currently averages 4.9 points per game for Auburn.
Milton Jennings has also failed to live up to his hype as the eighth-best power forward in the 2009 recruiting class according to Scout.com. This season, Jennings is averaging 10.4 points per game and shooting 41.9% from the field. While he has been a contributor for the Tigers, he hasn’t been the transcendent player one hopes to see from a five-star prospect. For most players, games like his 28 point, 14 rebound outing against Virginia Tech in January would be cause for celebration. For Jennings, it was seen as a tease of what could have been, contrasted with his 1-of-7 shooting performances throughout his game log. Perhaps, like with Johnson, Jennings wasn’t a good fit with Brad Brownell’s offense.
Devin Booker came to Clemson overshadowed by his brother, Trevor. Trevor nearly averaged a double-double during his junior season, setting high expectations for the younger Booker before his arrival. The brothers played together on the 2009-10 team, with Trevor averaging 15.2 points per game while Devin was effective in limited playing time. Now Devin, in his senior season, is averaging 13.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game for the Tigers, leading the team in both categories.
With the departures of Booker and Jennings, Clemson will lose more than a third of its scoring from this season. The only four-star recruit Clemson has landed since that 2009 class was Bernard Sullivan, who has only played more than ten minutes in an ACC game once during his sophomore season.
Less-celebrated recruits, such as sophomore K.J. McDaniels and Rod Hall and freshman Jordan Roper, have offered glimpses of what Clemson’s future may hold. McDaniels is one of the best shot-blockers in the conference, turning away two shots per game despite his 6’6” stature. Hall leads the Tigers in assists per game (3.4), while Roper has been a 40% shooter from three-point range.
The question now becomes how long Clemson is willing to place that future in the hands of Brad Brownell. Each season under Brownell has been worse than the previous one, but the 2013-14 season will be Brownell’s first using his signees exclusively. Next season will be a chance to prove that he can succeed in the ACC just as he did at UNC-Wilmington and Wright State. The Tigers won against Virginia in January, offering a highlight to the year. However, the recent five-game losing streak (six games if the Tigers lose at Miami over the weekend) will provide a bitter aftertaste to a difficult season.
In short, Clemson basketball is facing an uphill battle. Without much in the way of recent success to build on nor senior leadership on next year’s roster, it will be up to players like McDaniels, Hall, Roper, or Sullivan to rebound from a dismal 2013 and make up for the absence of Booker and Jennings. The Tigers shouldn’t be expected to contend for the ACC title next season. However, if Clemson can at least show signs of turning the ship around and returning to the success they experienced under Purnell, it would go a long way to validate what Brownell is trying to accomplish.