The Brad Brownell era is off to a good start at Clemson.
Clemson rolled to an 87-64 home victory over Western Carolina on Friday night in its season opener and Brownell's coaching debut with the Tigers. It was a strong showing for the Tigers as sophomore forward Devin Booker led four scorers in double figures with 16 points and 22 effective points. Clemson also had a 66 percent effective field goal percentage.
However, Brownell realizes that when his team plays its Atlantic Coast Conference opener on December 12 at Florida State that it will be in for a tough battle despite winning at least 21 games each of the last four seasons and playing in the NCAA Tournament each of the last three. Though he comes to Clemson from Wright State, Brownell knows enough about the ACC after spending 12 years as an assistant and head coach at UNC Wilmington.
"Hopefully my team will be prepared well," Brownell said. "Winning on the road at this level is very difficult. Not many teams get many road wins but it will be exciting and fun to go see all the different venues."
Brownell does not come into a situation where he needs to make radical changes. Clemson has had recent success, though the Tigers' inability to win an NCAA game since 1997 is part of the reason that coach Oliver Purnell felt enough heat to leave for DePaul after last season. Brownell plans to make some subtle changes, mainly cutting back on the full-court pressure defense Purnell liked to employ and giving his players more freedom on offense.
"Our guys are hungry, they're excited, they want to be coached and I’m really enjoying working with the group that way," Brownell said. "Because of the new philosophy and way of doing things it's probably going to take us a little while longer to get ourselves going in the right direction."
Clemson's strength should be in the backcourt with senior Demontez Stitt, who averaged 11.7 points/2.4 rebounds/3.1 assists/28.8 minutes last season, and juniors Andre Young (9.2/2.2/2.4/26.3) and Tanner Smith (8.7/4.2/2.2/24.9). Young's 3.6 steal percentage was 77th in the nation.
Devin Booker's strong opening-night performance was encouraging as his older brother Trevor, also a forward, was Clemson's leader scorer last season as a senior. The Tigers are also hopeful that junior forward Jerai Grant, nephew of former Clemson star Horace Grant, is ready to blossom in his third collegiate season.
Defense was Clemson's strong suit last season as its 88.9 defensive efficiency ranked 15th and its 24.7 turnover percentage was ninth. However, Young believes the offense could be even better than last season when the Tigers were 44th with a 110.9 mark.
"Coach is really emphasizing the importance of possession," Young said. "He's really emphasizing that we need to take care of the ball. No turners. There's going to be less pressing. He's really emphasizing defense and making plays, making plays defensively and offensively."
Despite the encouraging opener, Brownell realizes Clemson is a work in progress.
"It's hard to know how they'll adjust to what I'm doing," he said. "Even though we have only one freshman, it feels like we have 11 because they’re all new to me. But at least we have a lot of guys with experience playing in the ACC. We just want to put together a good program with good kids, good product on the floor, play hard, play together, be unselfish and compete. Hopefully, we can begin to take the next step and have some success, not on in the ACC but hopefully in the NCAA Tournament as well."
Purnell Debuts at DePaul
Meanwhile, Purnell makes his DePaul debut tonight when the Blue Demons host Chicago State in a crosstown matchup. DePaul is in need of a major turnaround as it went 11-19, 9-24 and 8-23 the last three seasons, which resulted in the firing of Jerry Wainwright. Purnell, though, says he has no numerical expectations for his first season in a new job.
"I've always had the same message every year," Purnell said. "Just get better every year. Don't let other people define success for you. I understand what it takes, and I know when it's going in the right direction."
DePaul's players like the idea of playing an attacking style. They were 301st among 347 Division I teams in adjusted tempo last season with a 63.8 mark.
"The biggest difference is we press the whole game—-from bringing the ball up, to fast breaks if we get a rebound, try to get the hoop," senior guard Mike Stovall told the Chicago Sun-Times. "If not, pull back into our half-court offense. But always in attack mode."
On the surface, resurrecting the program seems to be a tall order. However, Purnell has done at each of his other three coaching stops: Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson. He says the difference at DePaul is its rich basketball history and location.
"This situation is far better than any I've been in before because it's been done before here," Purnell said. "And there's a huge desire to get it done again. Chicago is a recruiting hotbed. Everyone comes here. But DePaul can recruit nationally. We have national exposure and can reach our alumni across the country. I've already felt that. And recruiting is the lifeblood of a program."
McCallup Will Improve on Debut
Detroit has four starters back from a team that made a significant jump to a 20-14 record last season after consecutive 7-23 finishes. And though the Titans lost four players to graduation and three others to attrition, they are considered the most likely team to challenge prohibitive favorite Butler in the Horizon League.
The reason for the optimism is freshman point guard Ray McCallum Jr., son of the Detroit coach, who was a McDonald's and Parade All-America player at Detroit Country Day. McCallum made his debut Saturday night in a 63-54 loss at New Mexico but was limited to 22 minutes because of foul trouble. He had six points and four assists, though he also turned it over four times. Despite the lackluster first game, McCallum's teammates know the kind of impact he can have.
"We have a lot of good guys who are unselfish," junior guard Chase Simon told the Detroit News. "With Ray, we have a true point guard who has a high IQ and who can shoot. His size will help. At 6'1" he can see over the defenses."
The elder McCallum says that the Titans won't change their style with his son running the show. They were 85th last season with a 69.0 adjusted tempo.
"We were a tough, grind-it-out, physical team," McCallum Sr. said. "We competed hard to get to the league semifinals. We have six juniors and no seniors. As we build the program they want a challenge. With this team we're learning how hard they have to compete."
Pitt Pushing the Pace
Pitt has always played a methodical game under coach Jamie Dixon. Last season, the Panthers played slower than just about any team in the country, their 62.6 adjusted tempo standing 322nd.
However, Dixon promised a faster pace coming into the season. So far, the Panthers have sped things up by increasing their adjusted tempo to 66.1 while getting off to a 3-0 start with home wins over Rhode Island, Illinois-Chicago and North Florida. Dixon believes sophomore point guard Travon Woodall, who is replacing the graduated Levance Fields, is better suited for a transition game.
"We want him to play faster, push the ball more," Dixon said. "That's not normally what we want to do, but we want him to get more transition opportunities for us."
Woodall believes he is ready to take on his expanded role after spending one season as Fields' understudy. Woodall was 52nd in the nation in assist rate with a 31.8 mark last year but that was offset by a 27.2 turnover rate.
"I think I've become a more mature penetrator," Woodall said. "I've always been able to pass, but now I'm more mature and not taking as many chances. I'm not turning the ball over like I did last year. I'm just calming myself down and making the simple plays."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.