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No. 22 Clemson Tigers: Can Clemson handle a full season of being the hunted?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 22 Clemson.


For the first time in seven years and for just the second time in the tenure of Brad Brownell, the Clemson Tigers are entering a college basketball season coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament.

For the first time in 21 season, Clemson won a game in the NCAA tournament, getting to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the history of the program and picking up just their 10th tournament win ever.

Suffice to say, this is not a school that is accustomed to basketball success, which is what makes this season all-the-more fascinating.

Clemson is this year’s Northwestern. For the first time in the history of their program, the Wildcats reached the NCAA tournament in 2017 and, with essentially everyone on their roster returning the following season, they entered 2017-18 as a team that popped up in just about everyone’s preseason top 20. We all know how that story ended: The Wildcats faded back into obscurity as the pressure of playing as ‘the hunted’ and the weight of expectation was too much for them. They finished just 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten, losing their final seven games before disappearing back into irrelevance.

Is that what’s in story for Clemson this season?

In theory, it shouldn’t be, but the response to success is sometimes just as important as finding it in the first place.

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CLEMSON WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

In an era where we constantly focus on one-and-done recruits that will have to adjust to playing in the college ranks, Clemson will feature the oldest backcourt possible.

Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell — who combined to average 28.0 points and 6.9 assists for one of the slower teams in the ACC last season — are both going to be redshirt seniors this season, heading into their fourth season under Brownell’s tutelage after transferring into the program from Robert Morris and Vanderbilt, respectively. They won’t have any hype heading into the season but I’m not sure there are three teams in the ACC with better guards. Duke, sure. Virginia, probably. Maybe North Carolina? Syracuse?

And they aren’t the only veterans in this Clemson starting lineup.

Elijah Thomas will be back for his senior season after finally looking like the player that was a top 30 recruit coming out of high school last season. Throw David Skara into the mix after he opted to return to school, and Brownell has a team that might end up collecting social security checks by the end of the season.

That’s a good thing, because it lends credence to the idea that the Tigers can continue to be one of the best defensive teams in college basketball this season.

Last year, Clemson finished 7th nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, which is the highest that Brownell has ever had a team finish in his coaching career. He’s had good defenses before — that’s what he is known for as a coach — but the previous three seasons, the Tigers failed to crack the top 50 defensively. Clemson is not going to be Villanova. They just do not have the horses to be able to take 30 threes a game and put up 90 points without breaking a sweat. If they’re going to end the year where we have them starting the season, it’s going to be because of continuity on the defensive end.

Combining a pair of all-league-caliber guards with a defense that projects as top three in the conference is a great place for a team to start.

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Elijah Thomas and Marcquise Reed (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

BUT CLEMSON IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

We more or less know who Clemson’s top five is going to be.

A season ago, the Tigers played with an eight-man rotation — seven after Donte Grantham tore his ACL in January — and three of those eight have since graduated. You don’t need to be an analytics guru to figure, then, that Clemson’s best five this year will be the four aforementioned seniors — Reed, Mitchell, Thomas and Skara — along with sophomore Aaric Simms, who slid into the starting lineup after Gratham’s season ended.

Beyond that, however, it’s really hard to figure where Clemson is going to get minutes and production from.

Let’s start with this: Last season, the Tigers thrived with a three-guard look, as Reed, Mitchell and the now-graduated Gabe Devoe all averaged roughly 34 minutes. When one of them would get a blow on the bench, Brownell typically went to a bigger lineup, which is not necessarily a great sign for the young guards waiting in the wings on this roster — Anthony Oliver II and Clyde Trapp, both of whom are sophomores and neither of whom saw more than eight minutes per game last year.

Can Brownell trust either of them? Will four-star freshman John Newman III be ready to contribute immediately? I’d bet on the latter over the former, but either way, someone is going to have to play those minutes, not only to ensure that Reed and Mitchell won’t play 40 minutes a night but to allow Clemson some lineup versatility. Teams that can switch between a three-guard, small-ball look and lineups with three forwards on the floor are tougher to prepare for and matchup with than a team will only play one way.

It’s worth noting here that I am slightly less concern about frontcourt depth. Both Skara and Simms — who we’ll talk more about below — can play the forward spots, and Clemson did bring in Javan White, a 6-foot-10 grad transfer from Oral Roberts.

Aamir Simms (Al Bello/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

Did anyone get better this offseason?

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, and Brownell is very much going to hope that is the case for Clemson this season.

We’ve already touched on how important it will be for one of (or both) Trapp or Oliver to take a step forward this season, but perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster is going to be Aamir Simms.

In the past, Brownell has deployed a small-ball four to great impact, whether it was K.J. McDaniels, Jaron Blossomgame or Grantham, and Simms profiles has the next in that pipeline. He proved to be an effective defender during his freshman season, and he profiles as a guy that could end up being one of the best defenders in the ACC as his career progresses. He is one of the biggest reasons why I think Clemson will once again finish in or around the top ten in defensive efficiency this year.

The key is going to be how he develops on the offensive side of the ball.

McDaniels and Blossomgame were both second round draft picks, and not just because of what they provided defensively; they both averaged better than 17 points in their final season with Clemson. Grantham averaged 14.3 points as a senior. They were vital cogs in what the Tigers did offensively.

Simms averaged just 5.7 points in the 16 games after Grantham got injured. He shot just 32.6 percent from three as a freshman. Clemson lost two of their top three scorers from a team that wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. Someone is going to have to step up and provide a spark on that end of the floor.

If Simms is that guy, I think Clemson can hit their ceiling …

2018-19 OUTLOOK

… I’m just not quite sure what that ceiling is.

I don’t think that Clemson fans can expect all that much more than last year’s Sweet 16 run this season. They haven’t really added pieces to get better considering the losses they’ve suffered.

That said, their floor is also very high. Clemson projects as a team that is going to be very good, if not elite defensively. They have a pair of guards that will show up on all-ACC teams that are both fifth-year seniors with experience winning in March. Those are the two things we look for, right?

So while I don’t think Clemson is going to be all that exciting this year, no one ever said a team needs to be exciting to win a lot of games.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.