Every baseball pitcher sings the praises of his defense when he tosses an outstanding game. Fans acknowledge a shortstop’s play deep in the hole that saves a hit or a run. Football coaches long have talked of offenses being for show and defenses paying the dough in the form of championships.
Yet, when it comes to basketball, particularly at the college level, teams that display exceptional defense generally have carried that dreaded label of being, well, boring. Take, for example, Clemson, which leads the nation in that boring statistical category of scoring defense.
How else to describe the Tigers’ 45-41 victory against Georgia Tech earlier this week? Dreadful. A snoozer. Made the first three quarters of an NBA game look exciting by comparison.
Brad Brownell says he is not naive. The Clemson coach knows fans would much rather see 95-91 games in which dunks and flashy drives to the basket replace dives to the floor for loose balls and hand-in-the-face, contested jump shots.
“There’s no doubt, people want to see baskets made,” Brownell says. “Shoot, we want to be making baskets. But, at the same time, there is an appreciation that grows with fans when they’re watching kids defend at a high level consistently.”
Clemson is doing that. In fact, over the past two seasons, solid, clamp-down defense has become the trademark of Clemson basketball. The Tigers allowed 60 points per game a season ago, the lowest average for a Clemson team since 1950. This season, that total has dropped to 55 per game, which would be the lowest average since the 1948-49 Tigers allowed 54 per game.
“I do believe you need to have an identity as a program,” Brownell says. “A program needs to stand for something, and I think we’ve used the defensive side of the ball to establish an identity for our team and our program, and I think it’s helped us.”
Defense has been so ingrained in the minds of Clemson players, they often begin postgame conversations on the topic. During the preseason, guard Jordan Roper said stick-to-’em defense is the quickest route to Brownell’s heart, and the best way to earn more playing time.
In eight of Clemson’s 15 wins, the Tigers held their opponent to 50 points or fewer. Clemson was particularly stingy against instate, nonconference opponents, holding Furman to 35, Coastal Carolina to 40 and S.C. State to 49. In addition to the aforementioned 41 scored by Georgia Tech, Clemson has limited ACC opponents Virginia Tech and Florida State to 49 apiece.
Yet, this is not a Clemson defense that constantly harasses opponents. The Tigers do not play like the Bob Knight-coached Indiana teams or the Mike Krzyzewski-led Duke teams of yesteryear that aggressively attacked opposing offenses, denied passing lanes and created chaos that led to turnovers.
Brownell describes his team’s defense as preferring position over pressure. For one, Brownell does not have guards who can apply pressure on the opponent’s ball-handler as he did in his earlier Clemson years with pick-pockets Demontez Stitt and Andre Young.
Also, an offseason rules emphasis change forced Brownell’s hand. No longer are players allowed to hand check or rest an arm or hand on a defender. Brownell says he wanted to extend his team’s defense farther down the court this season, but opted against it because officials now call fouls on any check that prevents movement for the offensive player.
As a result, Clemson ranks 314th in the country with 4.8 steals per game. The tradeoff is that Clemson’s defense allows few open looks for opponents on the perimeter, and it contests nearly every shot around the basket.
That is why Clemson opponents shoot 38 percent on field-goal attempts to rank ninth nationally. The Tigers are 12th nationally in blocked shots with six per game.
It adds up to a defense that has produced a winning formula for Clemson, albeit one that has not exactly been embraced by its fans, or many other fans, for that matter.
“I think people embrace your style the longer you have it when you’re successful,” says Brownell, whose club is 15-6, including 6-3 in the ACC. “Certainly, if you don’t win, people aren’t going to embrace your style.
“The longer that you’re at a place and you do well and you have success, people begin to appreciate it when you start to watch how hard kids are playing and how much work and teamwork is involved.”
Should Clemson continue to win with its defense, you may hear its home fans chanting “Dee-fense!” “Dee-fense!” at crucial parts of a game, or perhaps waving large “Ds” and fence signs in the stands.
That would be something new to basketball.