The Tigers are coming.
Clemson head coach Amanda Butler notched her 250th career win on Friday, but she will remember that victory for reasons beyond the milestone. Her ninth-seeded Tigers beat eighth-seeded South Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, improving their record to 20-12 and earning a second-round matchup with top-seeded Mississippi State on Sunday. The win was Clemson’s first NCAA Tournament victory since 2001 (and its first appearance since 2002) and added to the incredible turnaround the program has experienced in Butler’s first season at the helm.
To put it simply, Clemson was bad last season, with a 11-19 record overall and a 1-16 record in ACC play. The Tigers lost eight conference games by at least 20 points, including a 53-point drubbing at Notre Dame. Their defensive metrics were respectable, but the offense was a problem: Clemson scored the third-fewest points per game of any team in the country, and its effective field goal percentage of 36.1% ranked second-worst in the country. (Effective field goal percentage adjusts teams’ shooting percentage to account for the fact that three-point shots are worth more than two-pointers.) The Tigers ranked third-to-last in assists per game (8.1) and dead last in points per scoring attempt (0.80).
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Last season wasn’t an anomaly, either. In fact, it was the program’s 14th straight losing season. The Tigers’ 10 ACC wins this season were more than they’d recorded in the previous five years combined, with the nadir coming in 2015-16 (0-17 in conference). After the 2017-18 season, athletic director Dan Radakovich decided that Clemson needed a change and hired Butler, who was the head coach at Florida for a decade before being let go after the 2016-17 season. Instead of taking another job, Butler decided to use the 2017-18 season as a “gap year” to learn from other coaches across the country.
Under Butler’s watch, one of the most dramatic changes for Clemson has been in pace of play. The Tigers are averaging a whopping nine more possessions per 40 minutes than they did a season ago, and their 76.1 possessions per 40 minutes this season ranks 15th in the country. Playing faster can improve the offense by giving a team easy baskets in transition, or it can worsen the offense if a team is playing too fast and turning the ball over. For Clemson, a faster pace has done wonders.
In the chart below, the cell colors indicate where the statistic ranks nationally. Dark green means that Clemson ranks among the top 10% of teams nationally in that category, light green means that Clemson ranks between the top 10% and top 33%, gray indicates a ranking in the middle 33%, pink indicates a ranking between the bottom 10% and bottom 33%, and red means that the team ranks among the bottom 10% of teams nationally.
The Tigers are shooting eight percentage points better from the field and 14 points better from behind the arc than a season ago. That improvement has moved them from the bottom 10% of teams (red) to the top third (light green) in those categories. The Tigers are also scoring more efficiently, averaging over 15 more points per 100 possessions and 0.17 more points per scoring attempt this season. And while their turnover rate ranks in the bottom third of teams nationally, it is virtually unchanged from a season ago, which suggests that Clemson’s turnovers are not the result of playing too quickly.
Friday’s win over South Dakota illustrated Clemson’s offensive growth, as the team shot 47.0% from the field and 42.9% from behind the arc. The Tigers also got 15 points in transition compared to just two for South Dakota. In the postgame press conference, South Dakota senior Allison Arens praised Clemson’s shooting: “We kind of dared them to shoot and they made some shots … We adjusted, but just couldn’t quite hold them.”
As has been the case throughout the season, Clemson also got offense from its defense on Friday. The Tigers got 10 steals and converted 17 South Dakota turnovers into 22 points. For the season, Clemson ranks sixth in the country in steals per game, 11th in steal rate, 11th in turnovers forced per game, and 26th in opponent turnover rate. Last season, Clemson was good but not elite in those categories. The uptick in pressure under Butler has helped Clemson’s defense improve to 37th in the country (per Her Hoop Stats) despite allowing opponents to shoot slightly better this season than last season.
Last month, Butler described Clemson’s approach at the beginning of the season: “Let’s make sure that everybody who runs up against us … know[s] who they’re playing against. That we really battle and compete in a way that’s memorable, not only for us but also our opponents.” That approach has fueled Clemson’s defense in every game this season and will surely be a point of emphasis again in the matchup with Mississippi State.
In some ways, Mississippi State is the ultimate test for Clemson. Mississippi State is an elite team that plays similarly to the Tigers, with a suffocating defense that ranks third in the nation per Her Hoop Stats and holds opponents to the eighth-fewest points per 100 possessions nationally. The Bulldogs also like to run, ranking in the top third of teams nationally in pace and scoring the second-most points per game in the nation. For good measure, the game will pit Butler, this year’s ACC Coach of the Year, against Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, the SEC Co-Coach of the Year.
But in other ways, Clemson has nothing left to prove this season. Before the season started, Butler set a goal of getting her team into one of the postseason tournaments: “We should be talking about postseason … we should expect that of ourselves.” Last week, when Clemson was still crossing its fingers for an NCAA berth, Butler said, “Just let us in and we’ll do our work.” Boy, did they ever, and Mississippi State should expect the same sort of fight on Sunday. The transformation is real, Butler is back, and Clemson is no paper tiger.
(All statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats and represent games through March 22.)
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