by Kyle Koso
While accurately predicting the 2020-21 college basketball season seems impossible, thanks to COVID-19’s shadow, the Clemson men’s team is choosing to be inspired by what it already knows is possible.
The Tigers (who tip off against Mississippi State on Wednesday at the Space Coast Challenge) finished a modest 16-15 last season but flashed in the news cycle with impressive upset victories. In taking down Duke, Louisville and Florida State, it marked one of the rare times a team defeated three AP Top 6 opponents in the same season. And as good as that sounds for Clemson’s fan base, it probably comes in second behind the Jan. 11 overtime win at North Carolina, which broke an 0-for-59 losing streak in Chapel Hill.
To take the next step forward, the Tigers will deploy a more experienced roster, anchored by preseason first-team ACC selection Aamir Simms (13 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season as a junior). They’ll also keep those good memories front and center.
“Those are great things to drawn on, and some of our guys were big parts of those games. The more of those you can put together, the better,” said head coach Brad Brownell, who enters his 12th year at Clemson. “We’re going to build upon it … you learn from losing, and you learn from the things you do well. We were a different team in January and February than December, like a lot of teams, and we were playing better basketball. We are more experienced in the backcourt (the team started two freshmen guards last year), but those guys got better.”
Defensively, the Tigers were very resolute last season, holding teams to 41 percent shooting from the field, and there’s every expectation that mindset will continue — the team also welcomes in two 6-foot-10 freshmen centers in Lynn Kidd and PJ Hall, who have the potential to impact the roster as rim protectors. If there’s a hot-button concern, it might be on offense, as Clemson shot just 31.5 percent from long range last year.
Simms (6-8, 245 lbs.) broadened his game as a junior and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line, and he’ll take on the challenge of not being too outside orientated when the team also needs him mucking in the middle for rebounds.
“You can’t be a one-dimensional player. That won’t get you far. I try not to be stuck in my ways,” said Simms, who showed he was capable as a passer as well last season and gave the NBA Draft a hard look before deciding to return as a senior. “I can get the rebound, and that opens up the offense … I can push the ball up the court and make defenses adjust when the 5 is bringing the ball up. I’ve never been a player who hunts 3’s, I let the game come to me. Being able to have balance is key for the offense, having me down low and also the perimeter makes it hard for the defense to adjust.”
“He continues to grow. Last year, I was still trying to breathe confidence in him. We put the ball in his hands, and his ability to play different ways is one of his strengths,” Brownell said. “He may not be a 20-point scorer, but his value is what he brings every day to practice, his leadership and work ethic, his knowledge, how hard he plays every day. That can be rare for seniors who have had some accolades … they’re not quite as hungry, and I don’t sense that at all from Amir.”
The thought is the Tigers won’t require as many games to find their rhythm this time around, with sophomore guards Chase Hunter and Al-Amir Dawes being more prepared. Two seniors, guard Clyde Trapp and forward Jonathan Baehre, and junior John Newman will also play important roles.
"For me to be the player I am, I have to have a great supporting cast," Simms added. "It’s all connected and goes into one thing — I learn how to play different with different lineups, and that’s not too much of a challenge to balance, to work on my goals, and what the team needs for the year. You have to be able to do both."
The challenge will be doing better work as shooters, and not leaning too heavily on Simms.
“It’s no secret, last year’s team struggled to shoot the ball. When we made 3’s, we could be very problematic and beat some the best teams in the country,” Brownell said. “We had some great wins, but physically we weren’t a team that could dominate you. We played with a lot of inexperienced players and at times were inconsistent. It’s a question mark again this year. I think we are shooting it better, and for us to have the season we want, that’s part of it.”