I'll break this up into discussions on defense and offense; talking mostly from a statistical perspective. But first, here's where we stand compared to years past on adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies which measure scoring efficiency per 100 possessions:
One thing to keep in mind efficiencies is that these numbers are adjusted for strength of the opponent, so in theory the above won't necessarily change even as the competition intensifies in ACC play. In practice, however, there still aren't enough data points to be really confident that significant fluctuations won't occur. There's also the effect of coaching adjustments; last year after the Maryland game Clemson's defensive efficiency started taking a nosedive, for reasons I documented previously.
Overall the defense looks tough, and has rebounded nicely from the disastrous tail-end of the '09 campaign. What's interesting is how this has happened--some of it is probably sustainable and some isn't (unlike the efficiencies above, these stats aren't necessarily adjusted for strength of opponent. I'll explain more below.) Take a look at the next two charts, one showing the "four factors" and the other showing miscellaneous components:
The four factors are revealing: Clemson's effective field goal percentage defense has rebounded to pre-'09 levels, and they are forcing turnovers at their best clip since 2005/2006. They are also keeping other teams off the offensive glass similar to the level they had 2007 and before. I've talked before about Purnell's seeming willingness to sacrifice offensive boards in the name of challenging the shot, as evidenced by the team consistently posting high block shot rates while giving up high offensive rebound percentages on defense, so this represents a bit of a shift from previous results. I'm a bit skeptical this is sustainable, however, because while Clemson has added some height, they also haven't played any particularly tall teams. Look for this stat to drop as the season goes on, but just keeping it around 200 in the nation could improve the defense slightly. On the other hand, this may be part of a conscientious adjustment by the coaching staff. For the first time in years, Clemson isn't an elite shot-blocking squad (see second chart above). If this is true, the numbers might be sustainable, but it seems to me that the end result won't really help (or hurt) the overall defensive numbers, as the two stats cancel each other out to some degree.
So despite the noticeable improvement in keeping other teams off the offensive glass, I think the real story behind the improved defense relates to the decrease in FG% against and to a lesser extent the increase in forcing turnovers. The second chart shows that the improvement in FG% defense stems primarily from a much better 3-point defense . I felt this was one of the keys going into the season, whether or not Clemson could stop the bleeding from behind the arc. We gave up too many open looks behind the arc after teams broke the press last season, to say nothing of our lax half-court three-point defense. I think this is a real improvement stemming from the different types of pressure Purnell has been throwing at teams, as well as his willingness to mix up the pressure looks throughout the game. This has made teams hesitant to push the ball up quickly, leading to fewer runouts and fewer wide-open looks. We'll see if this continues in ACC play, but for now Purnell and company deserve credit for effectively addressing what was possibly the biggest problem facing the defense coming into the season.
One other interesting stat is the FT% against. Clemson ranks 21st in the country in holding teams to 62.7% from the line. That's remarkable, but obviously sounds like dumb luck. Unless Clemson has managed to install some kind of unobtrusive but remarkably effective device to distract opposing shooters at Littlejohn, there's little likelihood of this continuing. On the other hand, last year Clemson posted the 53rd best FT rate against in the country. I'm still inclined to pass this off as a fluke, but I wonder if there is something else at work here. Are Purnell and staff coaching the players to specifically target poor free throw shooters for fouls? Seems like a pretty smart way to incrementally increase your odds of winning a game. At any rate, as the ACC season starts the free throw shooters should get better, so I don't see Clemson continuing to hold a ridiculous 63% against FT rate. But it will be interesting to see if we end up in the top 60 at the end of the season.
The offense is where we have struggled so far this season, with the team playing more like 2007 than 2008 or 2009. Terrence Oglesby!! If only we had T.O. to drain those clutch 3-pointers!!! Aaah, the lazy hack sportswriter explanation that will grace many a page printed or electronic before the season's over. Instead of taking the easy way out, let's take a look at the charts:
The problem with the Oglesby observation is that our effective FG% is actually better than recent years and the 3-point shooting is right about where its been lately (thank you Andre Young, and I believe I called that right after finding out about Oglesby). Now it is true that we are shooting the three less often, but I for one am happy to see us look to the inside game more. I think there's room to cut Young loose a little more, and I'd like to see Johnson take more opportunities to find his shot, but for the most part I'm happy to see more shots at the rim from this year's squad.
I think their are two major problems in addition to one minor issues with the offense. First, turnovers are up again from last season. This is a real problem: check out the rate of other teams stealing the ball from us. We just aren't protecting the ball, and teams are taking advantage. The second problem is our atrocious FT shooting, which has now officially sunk to 2008 levels and keeps getting worse as Trevor Booker continues his swoon at the line. The minor issue worth keeping an eye on is the small drop in offensive rebounding. At this point I'm not terribly concerned--we're still #30 in the country (and the drop could be related to our drop in overall 3-point shots), but since we have depended so much on this facet of the game in the past its worth keeping an eye on.
The last thing I want to draw attention to is that we haven't been tested by excellent defensive teams. Last year this was really our Achilles heel, we got bludgeoned by tall teams with excellent defenses in the Wake Forest and Florida State mode. (They rank #1 and #2 in overall effective height this year, by the way). We have added some height this year, but its still just slightly above the national average (which will rate out as below the ACC average):
It will be interesting to see how we handle the big ACC teams this year.
Right now, Kenpom.com has us pegged at 9 conference wins. I think that's about right, with 10 not being out of the question. I had much higher hopes coming into the season, but I qualified that by stating we needed freshmen to step up into regular, productive roles. Its still possible for this to happen, but it's asking a lot for unproductive freshmen to see playing time, much less improvement, while playing in one of the two best conferences in the country.