I'll review the team from a stats-based perspective after the NCAA tourney wraps up, but I wanted to get this out as a more emotional response to the end of the regular season and a way to head off some of the possible talk about slow finishing...
Another basketball season is coming to a close, and unfortunately the way things have unfolded may remind Clemson fans of recent seasons: good start followed by a slow finish. Since there was talk a scant two weeks ago about contending for an ACC title and now we have managed to miss the first-round bye, I think its totally understandable to make the connection to the "traditional" late-season collapses of yesteryear. Without making any statistical arguments, I think there are clear differences between Clemson 2009 and Clemson 2005-2007, which are the years people typically point to as evidence of our late season problems.
First of all, let me preface this by saying that if you had told me at the start of the season we would have gone into WF for the last game of the season looking for our 10th conference win, I would have taken it every time. At the start of the season we all knew this team would take a step down from previous years, probably most prominently in our defense. The most optimistic pundits/projections pegged us as matching 2008, the more realistic had us around .500 in the conference, looking at an 8/9 seed of death for the NCAA tourney. And while I don't think the term "rebuilding year" can really apply to college sports, I was certainly willing to endure a down year after the steady improvement of the last four, and with all signs pointing to a great 2010. At any rate, despite my constant pleas for adjustment as the season wound down, I think the results this year point to an absolutely tremendous year-long effort from the coaching staff.
So what makes this year different from 2005-2007? In those years we struggled immediately upon entering ACC play, and it was evident that even if the coaching was there for Clemson, the talent level on a lot of the nights just couldn't hold up. I don't think that's the case for 2009. We have talent comparable to most teams in the ACC on this team, but the problem lies in team construction. We just have too many significant, exploitable flaws. And the flaws were identified, the rest of the ACC took notice and there wasn't much we could do to adjust. I would point to two turning points this season--the first Wake game and the Maryland game.
The first Wake game showed the rest of the conference how to defend Clemson. They suffocated our perimeter with incredible height all night long, altering shots from behind the arc and keeping passes out of the post. This neutralized Booker underneath, and took away our 3-point weapons outside, the two weapons the offense runs on. Not every team could mimic Wake's success without their height (think Virginia, Maryland, and even Duke), but I think from that point on we saw every team from trying to apply intense pressure around the perimeter, even overplaying because we weren't too keen on driving to the hoop or taking open jumpers.
The Maryland game gave the rest of the conference the book on how to beat our defense. Gary Williams and Maryland attacked the press relentlessly and put up run-outs all night long on our full-court press. Other teams (VT, for example) had similarly run with Clemson, but Maryland did something different...after breaking the press, they had players spotting up for open threes and also had the ballhandler pulling up for easy jumpers. This really took away one of the strength's of Clemson's press--their ability to get back to the hoop and block shots even when a team thought they had a clean layup. Maryland turned the tables by opening up the floor. Luckily for Clemson, Maryland is an absolutely horrible shooting team, and we ran away after some untimely Maryland turnovers and some Maryland fatigue in the second half. But this strategy was employed effectively by other teams in the waning games of the season, I would pin the VT loss squarely on the open threes Clemson kept giving up to sharp-shooters Vasallo and Delaney.
This year's team rode an excellent game plan to a great start for the first ~21/22 games of the season. But give ACC coaches some credit, they watched the tapes and smelled the blood--eventually constructing a game plan that attacks Clemson's makeup, not something you can easily adjust to. The WF game might offer some glimmers of hope for a postseason run, but no matter how things finish and despite our late season swoon, I don't see how we can view this season as anything but a success for the program. Nothing extraordinary, perhaps, but a solid season for a program seriously lacking a history of solid seasons.