2008-2009 Record: 23-9, 9-7 ACC (t-5th)
Key Losses: KC Rivers (14.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Terrence Oglesby (13.2 ppg, 38.8% 3's), Raymond Sykes (7.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
Key Returners: Trevor Booker (15.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Demontez Stitt (8.7 ppg, 3.8 apg), David Potter (4.9 ppg)
Newcomers: Milton Jennings, Devin Booker, Noel Johnson, Donte Hill
The Tigers of the last few seasons have been notorious for winning a lot of early, non-conference games, only to struggle down the stretch of ACC play and fizzle out in the NCAA Tournament. Last season was no different as Clemson was upset in the first round of the ACC Tourney and lost to Michigan in a 7-10 game in the Big Dance.
Hopefully for Oliver Purnell, this is the year that changes. Yes, the Tigers lost two of their top three scorers as KC Rivers graduated and Terrence Oglesby left for Norway, but he does return one of the best big men in the ACC in Trevor Booker. Booker has turned into a beast during his time at Clemson. Booker is not the most talented guy, but there may not be a more athletic and aggressive power forward in the country. He defends hard, he rebounds hard, he posts hard, he goes the rim hard. When Booker is on the floor, you know you are going to be getting 110% out of him, and when your star player is leaving everything he has on the floor, it is tough for the rest of the team not to follow suit.
What makes Booker so good for Purnell's system is his athleticism. He is mobile enough to play up front on the Tigers excellent press, but he is also big and strong enough to control the glass and defend the post. He can also play inside and outside on the offensive end. You don't want him taking six threes a game, but he has developed a good enough stroke that if you leave him open from the perimeter he can knock down some jumpers (he was 9-22 from deep last season). But if he is being guarded by the opposing four, he is able to put the ball on the floor for one or two dribbles either direction and get to the rim. An 18 and 10 season is not out of the question.
Joining Booker up front will be a typical Clemson front line, meaning they are loaded with long, rangy, athletic fours. The best of the bunch may end up being freshman Milton Jennings when it is all said and done. Jennings is 6'9" and very skilled, especially on the perimeter, but he still needs to improve his strength and get tougher inside. But skilled, rangy big men are the perfect fit for the system run at Clemson, and Jennings will thrive playing for Oliver Purnell. Jerai Grant and Devin Booker, Trevor's brother, will also see significant minutes up front. Grant is not overly skilled, but he plays hard, runs the floor, and is athletic enough to grab a few boards and block a few shots. The younger Booker is about where the elder was at this stage. He is an excellent athlete with some polished post moves, and if he can work as hard as Trevor, he should be an impact player immediately. Don't be surprised is 7'2" sophomore Catalin Baciu sees some increased minutes this season.
The point guard spot is going to be held down by junior Demontez Stitt, who I personally believe is one of the more underrated guards in the ACC. Stitt is an excellent on the ball defender, which makes him extremely valuable to Purnell. Offensively, he is quick with the ball and able to penetrate. As he gains more confidence in his scoring and passing ability, he will become more effective. His development will be crucial to the Tigers success this year as they lost a lot of scoring the past two seasons.
Perhaps the most important player on this team will be 6'6" freshman Noel Johnson. Johnson joins the Tigers with a reputation as a shooter and scorer from the perimeter, and with their only two perimeter threats leaving, he will be asked to contribute a lot immediately.
Joining Stitt and Johnson on the perimeter will be David Potter, Tanner Smith, and Andre Young. Potter and Smith are both excellent defenders with a lot of size (6'6" an 6'5", respectively). You know what you are going to get from those two in terms of defense and hustle, but they are going to need to increase their scoring if Clemson wants to become a player in the wide open ACC. Young is a quick, 5'9" sophomore that will back up Stitt. He may be a better offensive player than Stitt at this point in his career, taking better care of the ball and being a better shooter. But until he proves the ability to score inside the arc (he was just a 36% shooter from two) he will be just a role player. Also expect Brian Narcisse and Donte Hill, and extremely athletic 6'4" freshman, too provide quality minutes as well.
Outlook: I really like this Clemson team. While they lost some of their scoring from last season, they are going to be much more athletic this year. Trevor Booker will be in the conversation for ACC player of the year, so as long as guys like Stitt and Johnson live up to their expectations, and the role players on this team play hard and defend, Clemson should be in the race for the ACC crown. The Tigers run a tough press, and with the number of quality guards that left the ACC, it is feasible to believe that Clemson could bring home an ACC crown.