Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer 602d

Clemson hoping new faces can help close the gap in ACC

Dabo Swinney, hot off a national championship, is a hero.

Brad Brownell kept his job.

Such is the disparate state of affairs at Clemson, where relevance comes with a complicated definition. Not that the Tigers are unique. Plenty of basketball programs across the country are fighting for air space and attention on their own campuses, dwarfed by the mighty shadow of the pigskin.

But this season the contrast is especially stark at Clemson. While Swinney basked in the after glory of that title, Brownell endured the scorch of the hot seat, keeping his gig only after athletic director Dan Radakovich put out a statement that included this sentiment: “We expect Brad to make changes in the program to better position us for success.’’

That meant buh-bye to Brownell’s longtime right-hand man, Mike Winiecki, who had served Brownell for some 14 years, and a still-to-be-determined change in philosophy for Clemson. Brownell said he intends to employ the use of a sports psychologist and work to better the Tigers defensively.

The real goal is to simply win more games. Clemson finished 17-16 overall and 6-12 in the ACC last season, and while five of those losses came by three points or fewer, they still go down on the wrong side of the ledger. And that was with Jaron Blossomgame on the court. Failing to ride Blossomgame’s talent to an NCAA berth ranked as one of the reasons Brownell found himself the subject of dismissal rumors.

Now he tries to forge ahead and claim that elusive NCAA bid for the first time since 2011 without Blossomgame and sharpshooting Avry Holmes. There are places to turn, as Brownell has made heavy use of the transfer market.

Vanderbilt transfer Shelton Mitchell proved a deft floor leader last season, averaging 10.8 points and 3.8 assists. Though Mitchell recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, he should be more than ready come game time.

Robert Morris transfer Marcquise Reed was a good backcourt mate for Mitchell, scoring 10 points a game, and this season the Tigers can at least get a full year’s worth out of Elijah Thomas. The Texas A&M transfer became eligible in December, posting 7.5 points and 4.2 boards per game.

David Skara, yet another transplant, is eligible this season after coming in from Valparaiso. A 6-foot-8 small forward, Skara is a decent 3-point shooter who should help alleviate the loss of Holmes.

And Brownell is very high on an incoming freshman class that includes power forwards Malik William and Aamir Simms and shooting guards A.J. Oliver and Clyde Trapp Jr.

But is all of that enough? Moving up the ACC ranks, even in a year in which there could be some wiggle room thanks to roster turnover, is no easy task. Doing it without an obvious go-to star, such as Blossomgame, is even more difficult.

Certainly the university has put its money where its mouth is, proving it is not a football-only place by pouring $63.5 million into a much-needed face-lift of Littlejohn Coliseum.

No one expects Clemson basketball to become Clemson football and hang a banner in those cleaned-up Littlejohn rafters.

Closing the canyon-wide gap and getting back to the NCAA tournament, though, would be a good start.

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