First-year success

By any measure, coach Brad Brownell's first season at Clemson was a resounding success.

An up-and-coming coach who arrived in Clemson last April after leading mid-majors UNC Wilmington and Wright State to NCAA Tournament berths, Brownell made an immediate impact and Tigers fans were duly impressed by his energy, in-game coaching abilities and defensive-minded approach.

In what was expected to be a down season for Clemson after losing Trevor Booker to the NBA, the Tigers showed considerably more mettle than anticipated, going 22-12 and never losing a game by more than 11 points -- a statistic that no other team in the Atlantic Coast Conference could claim.

Brownell guided Clemson to its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth -- a school record - and, the Tigers won their opening-round game before falling to West Virginia.

Brownell was one of just four first-year coaches nationwide to lead his new team to the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect about the way the Tigers' season unfolded was that the team got better as the season went on. In mid-January, the Tigers had lost three consecutive games and were just 5-4 overall, but the team seemed to really begin grasping and buying into Brownell's motion offense and sticky defense and promptly reeled off an eight-game winning streak.

The Tigers went toe-to-toe with all of their ACC brethren, losing three games by a single basket, and winning seven of their last 11 regular-season games. They also advanced to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament and won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1997 before losing to West Virginia in an NCAA second-round game.

Success is now expected at Clemson, where four consecutive winning seasons in ACC play and four straight NCAA bids have had a big impact on how the Tigers are perceived around the league. Now the attention is turning to next season and replacing some key ingredients -- namely, the inside-outside tandem of seniors Jerai Grant and Demontez Stitt, who emerged as the team's top two scorers and were integral to the Tigers' success last season.

PLAYER NOTES
* Senior guard Demontez Stitt was the player who made the Tigers go, and he was particularly effective late in the season. He averaged 14.4 points, but scored 45 points in two ACC Tournament games and was the only player named to the All-Tournament Team whose team wasn't in the championship game. An underrated player, Stitt proved his worth and savvy down the stretch, and time and again produced late-game heroics to save the Tigers. He also developed a knack for driving to the basket and using body control to draw fouls, which is a talent the Tigers may be sorely lacking next season without Stitt.

* First-year coach Brad Brownell made the Clemson administration look like geniuses, guiding the Tigers to a 22-12 record, the ACC Tournament semifinals and an NCAA Tournament berth. Not bad for a team projected to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"He's probably the best coach I've ever had," senior Demontez Stitt said at season's end. "I've known him less than a year, but it seems like I've known him my whole college career."

SEASON RECAP
Brownell knew that senior forward Jerai Grant would have to emerge for the Tigers to have success. Suffice to say Grant didn't disappoint. A career 4.7 points per game scorer, Grant stepped up his game in a big way, averaging 12.4 points and giving the Tigers the missing ingredient in an effective inside-outside combination.

Despite the early season defections of guards Donte Hill and Noel Johnson, Brownell held the team together, fostering a unity that became evident as the season progressed. Little-used 5-8 guard Zavier Anderson, a walk-on, emerged as a valuable reserve and was put on scholarship for his final semester, and Brownell also "recruited" standout receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the football team to provide much-needed depth on a team that was down to eight scholarship players in December.


"Milton Jennings scoring in double figures in three of Clemson's last five games, including a career-high 16 against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals." (AP)
Following the lead of their coach, the Tigers proved to be a scrappy bunch, leading the ACC in scoring defense and never losing a game by more than 11 points. The team rally came into its own down the stretch, winning seven of its final 11 games and posting key wins over Boston College and Virginia Tech that led to a fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid.

Now the attention will turn to next season, with Brownell charged with finding more help for a squad that will lose Grant as well as fellow senior Demontez Stitt.

Brownell may find the help he needs in sophomores Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, who both showed flashes of their capabilities late in the season. Booker scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Tigers' loss to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and Jennings scoring in double figures in three of Clemson's last five games, including a career-high 16 against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

THE GOOD NEWS
Team leaders Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant are gone, but it's not like the Tigers' cupboard is bare. Three starters return, including guards and rising seniors Tanner Smith and Andre Young.

Smith already could be considered the team's "glue" -- he's heady, consistent, and does everything well, including playing defense. Young, the team's primary 3-point threat, is steady and sometimes spectacular, as in his 22-point game against West Virginia in a second-round NCAA Tournament defeat. They'll be counted on to step up in 2011-12 and emerge as the team's emotional leaders, and both are capable.

Rising juniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings took another step forward and should be key players next season and guard Cory Stanton, who followed Brownell to Clemson after committing to Wright State, showed he had the potential to be an ACC-caliber player.

More help is on the way as the Tigers' recruiting class includes four talented newcomers, including three-star power forward Bernard Sullivan of North Carolina. Also working the Tigers' favor will be familiarity with the staff and new system that Brownell implemented, so the learning curve -- which slowed even the seniors' progress last fall -- for the team should be considerably less steep.

THE BAD NEWS
Brownell must find a capable replacement for point guard Demontez Stitt, the team's leading scorer and best penetrator last season. Stitt is 6-foot-2, which is average for a point guard, but rising senior Andre Young is just 5-9. Inside the Tigers will have to find a way to replace the 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds provided by Jerai Grant.

Devin Booker could be the guy, but Clemson also badly needs help from 7-2 rising senior Catalin Baciu, who has yet to live up to expectations. Baciu, or "Bobo," may be a crowd favorite at Littlejohn Coliseum, but he averaged just one point and one rebound per game in limited playing time last season, so it's not easy to see him as a major contributor.

KEY RETURNEES
Guards Andre Young and Tanner Smith -- the rising seniors who are expected to be the team's leaders -- are proven commodities, which should give Clemson fans reason for optimism. Classmate Bryan Narcisse, a 6-8 forward, has shown flashes of brilliance off the bench, primarily providing bursts of energy with his defensive play and leaping ability, and 7-2 center Catalin Baciu has what you can't coach -- height.

Devin Booker will return in the middle after starting 32 games last season, so the Tigers will have some level of experience. Rising junior forward Milton Jennings also will be a key figure for the Tigers after averaging 8.3 points as a sophomore.

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