After winning the gold medal at the World University games this summer, Clemson basketball faces the Virginia Tech Hokies on Tuesday night. Can they build off a successful summer and bring another national title to the university?
When Clemson football clobbered Alabama 44-16 to win the 2018 national title, they left no doubt who was king in college football. Team USA took a page out of the national champions log and dominated Ukraine 85-63 to win gold in the 2019 World University games.
But like the 2018 national champs, Clemson basketball had to dig deep to win two crucial contests on the way to gold.
From July 3-11, the team represented the “USA” on their chest and “Orange Clemson Tigers paws” on their shorts very well. Just like the National Championship football team pulled out an early season nail biting win over Texas A&M, Team USA defeated Pool C opponent Finland 69-65 in their initial action of the games. It took a four-point play by freshman guard Alex Hemenway to give Team USA a lead after trailing by six late in the fourth quarter.
A road loss to the Aggies would have hurt the Tigers chances of returning to the College Football Playoffs but losing at home to Syracuse could have ended any playoff hopes. Without crucial plays from Hunter Renfrow, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, Chase Brice and others, the 2018 National Championship trophy might reside somewhere else today.
When Team USA trailed Israel 26-9 in the first quarter of the semifinals, it appeared that the seven weeks Clemson head coach Brad Brownell spent with junior Aamir Simms, three lightly used sophomores, and seven newcomers(three freshmen +four transfers) was not enough to bring home the gold. Fatigue, a lack of front court size and depth and little familiarity was, at some point, bound to disrupt this group during the trip.
Team USA went on a run and were tied with Israel at halftime. Simms put on a show for the Naples crowd, scoring 27 points with post ups, driving lay ups, three pointers, baskets off offensive rebounds and a shot-clock buzzer beating fade away baseline jumper. Simms grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds and got some help from freshman guard Al-Amir Dawes’ 16 points.
The Clemson football team was led by defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, collectively known as The Power Rangers, and Simms and sophomores John Newman, Hunter Tyson and Trey Jemison, will have to be the Rangers on the courts for the basketball team.
Last year, Simms averaged 26.3 minutes, 6.9 points, 4.6 rebounds per game while the sophomores combined to average 7.1 minutes, 1.0 points, 0.4 rebounds.
Each player has shown maturity off the court by making the All-ACC Honor Roll and displayed growth on the court in Italy.
Simms dominating performance against Israel was preceded by a 17 point, 13 rebound effort versus Finland and that performance was followed up with 19 points against China and 11 points and 10 rebounds versus Germany. Because of the lack of front court depth and size, Simms played exclusively at center. He led the team in scoring and rebounding with averages of 15.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. The 6-foot-8, 240 pounder held his own with the physical centers and played with energy while, at times, being “ a bit of a showman” according to the the FISUTV World University Games announcer.
Jemison, at 6-foot-11, 256 pounds, is the tallest player on the roster and one of the least experienced. Averaging only 4.3 minutes per game, he spent most of the 2018 off-season recovering from knee surgery. He hustled and made the most of his opportunities in Naples. He averaged 4.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 10 minutes of action per night. This Clemson team will need more minutes, points and rebounds from Jemison to make any significant push for an NCAA tournament bid.
Newman, a lefty, was a consistent, effective scorer, and Tyson flashed his long distance shooting touch for a team that struggled from beyond the arc in 2018.
The North Carolina natives are good friends and both had breakout games in the first matchup against Ukraine. Tyson scored 15 points making all five of his three point attempts, and Newman led the team with 17 points. Newman finished second on the team in scoring (13.3) and rebounding (5.7) and led in assists (2.3) and field goal percentage (56).
Tyson averaged 8.3 points and 3.8 rebounds while leading Team USA in steals (7) and three-point percentage (43).
“We are extremely proud of their progress in regards to basketball, and we do believe that the relationship off the court as close friends will last a lifetime,” Jonathan Tyson, father of Hunter, said speaking for himself and his wife Torri about the rising sophomores. “They both come from families who value God over everything else, and I believe that is why we value our friendship with the Newman’s as well. We are even more proud of how well they have done academically while juggling everything the first year of college brings.”
Jonathan is the Director of Research & Accountability of Union County Public Schools, so education is very important to him. Jonathan, also a former basketball star at Wingate University, regularly works with his son, who could see his 2018 minutes (8.3) more than double this season.
“We haven’t talked a lot about playing time, but he does feel like he is getting better and more comfortable each and every day,” Jonathan said before the gold medal championship match. “Over the past six months, I have witnessed his body transform. The work that he has done with the strength and conditioning program has allowed him to gain strength which in turn leads to confidence on the floor.” Prior to the gold medal game, Jonathan said it was beyond exciting to see Hunter and Newman play for the gold, and he hopes the boys use the platform to make a positive impact on others.
Brownell hopes the experience gained and gold medals obtained in Italy impacts his entire program positively too, especially, after a disappointing 2018 season. His team went to Naples undersized, hobbled team low on chemistry and left a confident, gold medal clinching, optimistic bunch of believers in themselves and ClemsonGrit.
Even without juniors Jonathan Baehre and Clyde Trapp who both suffered knee injuries days before the World University games, Simms, Newman, Tyson, Jemison and new teammates Hemenway and his classmates Chase Hunter and Dawes and transfers Tevin Mack (Alabama), Curran Scott (Tulsa), Khavon Moore (Texas Tech), and Nick Honor (Fordham) accepted adversity and bonded together for a common goal – to bring home the gold. Now, they must focus and come together again to pursue their NCAA basketball team goals and begin the journey without Baehre and Trapp for an extended time and maybe Honor for the entire season. Moore’s status for the season was also questionable until last week, when the NCAA issued a waiver for Moore making him eligible and available to play immediately.
Moore, a 6-foot-8, 220 pound small forward, will likely spend this season at power forward. In Naples, he averaged 1.8 points and 3.3 rebounds and his best game was a six- point, three rebound effort in the gold medal match.
I’m a recent interview with Tigernet, Brownell said Baehre could make his Clemson basketball debut in December and Trapp is scheduled to possibly return in January.
Brownell said that there isn’t any news on Honor, who is also seeking a waiver, but they hope to get an answer soon.
Graduate transfers Mack and Scott are eligible to play and were both major contributors in Italy. Mack, a former Dreher (SC) High forward, had a 18-point, 10 rebound double double in the 76-74 win over Germany and averaged 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 20 minutes. Scott, known as a three-point marksman, was also able to get to the basket from both backcourt positions and averaged 5.0 points in over 18 mins of action.
Scott will be joined in the backcourt by the freshman guards. Without Honor, Dawes and Hunter, who both averaged over 18 mins, will see that number and likely more minutes per game in 2019.
Rounding out the roster, are Indiana sharpshooter Hemenway, transfer Paul Grinde (Vassar College) and walk-ons Parker Foxx and O’Neil McBride.
Clemson will tip off 2019 against Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. eastern on ESPNU.