Brownell taking it slow with young Tigers

Clemson coach Brad Brownell is still figuring out the best methods to coach his young team.

DURHAM, NC — “UConn – 3.” 

That was written on a marker board and held up by Clemson assistant coach Dick Bender so the Tigers would know what set play to run on offense Tuesday night at Duke. Rarely did the plays work, at least in the first half. But that a team coached by Brad Brownell ran so many sets speaks volumes about where the Tigers are in their coaches’ mind. 

Clemson managed a 12-year-low 10 points in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium and finished with 40 in the 28-point loss to the nation’s top-ranked team. The Tigers connected on an almost unthinkable 3-of-25 field-goal attempts before halftime and finished the night with just three assists. 

The Tigers missed some easy shots, but for the most part simply couldn’t run their offense. Almost everything they did was contested. 

Brownell admitted after the game he’s calling more set players than before out of necessity. 

“It kind of varies from game to game,” he said. “We struggled a little bit with some of the motion stuff that I have run in the past a lot more. We just aren’t any good at it. Not that we are good at sets, judging by tonight’s performance. . . . We need to be better.”

Teaching young players who have yet to run many sets in their collegiate basketball careers something a bit more intricate is a task unto itself. Brownell’s deep-seated preference for a healthy motion offense in the form of how Bobby Knight’s old Indiana teams once ran it is quite a change from what most talented players learn at the high school level.

A lot of high school and college teams run freelance stuff with some motion principles intertwined, but full-blown motion isn’t run at many programs in power conferences because it takes so long to learn. Most ACC recruits have visions of leaving early or at least playing at the next level, and the inflated senses of self often hamstring what’s being taught. 

In Clemson’s case, it has a lot to do with the team’s youth. Five freshmen and six sophomores dot the 13-man roster, with the two seniors being forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Freshman Adonis Filer started Tuesday in the backcourt, and while he’s made progress this season, it was clear that he and the youthful Tigers are taking a while learning Brownell’s system. 

“Some of it is youth,” Brownell said. “I know except for Booker (and Jennings) everybody is a freshman or sophomore. That can be challenging. We have guys that need a little more skill development. Their skills aren’t ready for when they play against elite-level players. They get exposed. 

“Some of it is basketball IQ. We have so many things to work on with a younger team and to make adjustments, you feel like you get good at one or two things and move on from the next two.”

As youth often goes, the range of the Tigers’ inconsistency has revealed itself in the past three weeks. From the head-scratching 69-46 loss at Coastal Carolina to scoring 92 points in a win over The Citadel two games later, Brownell’s team is as unpredictable as it gets in the ACC.

The worst of being young and not having highly skilled players reared its ugly head against the Blue Devils. Clemson shot just 28.3 percent from the field against Duke, including just 1 for 11 from 3-point range. Against Duke, that's somewhat understandable. But it also indicates the chasm right now between the Tigers and the upper end of the ACC.

On the season, Clemson is converting 44.1 percent of its field-goal attempts, including 31.6 percent from beyond the arc. Only four players are averaging 8.5 points per game or more — led by Booker at 11.9. This just isn’t a gifted offensive team.

Brownell is a terrific coach and has a track record of bringing teams along during the course of seasons. Clemson will improve in the next two months, but it’s likely not a postseason club, so much of what’s learned is a bridge to next season.