Brad Brownell is betting an uncommon adjunct to his coaching repertoire, a steady dose of applied sports psychology, can help this year’s Clemson squad escape the gravitational pull of the basketball program’s undistinguished past. Halfway through the season the signs are promising, but that same history suggests ample caution.
ACC fans are accustomed to Clemson assuming also-ran status the way we expect Duke and North Carolina to rise to the top of the conference standings. When the region’s media projected the Tigers to finish 13th among the 15 ACC men’s teams this season, it made perfect sense. Last year Clemson lost 8 of 10 ACC games decided by five or fewer points and finished 12th, failing to reach the NCAAs for the sixth straight season. Then its best player, Jaron Blossomgame, graduated; no Tigers made any 2017-18 national preseason watch lists or earned all-conference mention.
Decades of precedent justify skepticism. Clemson is the only original remaining league member that’s never won the 64-year-old ACC tournament or reached a Final Four. Visits to the Triangle are almost equally fruitless, as demonstrated in a 78-77 defeat at N.C. State last week. Capping that futility, when the Tigers (15-2, 4-1) play the Tar Heels (14-4, 3-2) Tuesday night they’ll be trying to break an incomprehensible streak of 58 defeats in 58 visits to Chapel Hill. “It’s like Clemson’s supposed to lose,” former coach Cliff Ellis lamented after a Triangle defeat in 1990.
Tough physical defense
But, as coaches like to say, every team and every season is different. This Clemson squad has gotten off to a better than usual start at 15-2. Capping a 10-game winning streak, the Tigers opened the ’18 ACC season with three consecutive wins, a streak ended at Raleigh. (They rebounded by beating Miami on Saturday.) That modest league start still tied for third-best in Clemson history.
“We’ve probably done better than most Clemson teams to this point,” Brownell conceded cautiously last week. “Who knows? There’s not a lot of great history.”
True to the tenets of Brownell’s basketball approach, the Tigers play tough, physical team defense, their 2018 opponents’ cumulative field goal percentage among the lowest in school history. Shooting acuity, a longstanding weakness, also is on the upswing for the third straight season.
So far, the Tigers have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted, reflecting uncharacteristic balance between offense and defense, and of controlled aggression by a squad that starts five upperclassmen. Every starter averages in double figures, led by guard Marcquise Reed and forward Donte Grantham. Sharing the wealth comes more easily now – good as Blossomgame was, he took nearly twice as many shots as anyone else on the squad in 2017.
“Sometimes teams just fit together better, the dynamics of what guys are trying to do and how they play together, and sharing the ball, and roles,” Brownell says. He believes his club “absolutely” grew closer during an August trip to Spain on which it narrowly escaped a deadly terrorist attack that occurred just outside its Barcelona hotel.
Clemson already has won two ACC games by narrow margins, matching last year’s total. “There is a little bit of momentum that comes with winning close games,” Brownell observed after the Tigers bested Louisville in overtime at loud Littlejohn Coliseum. “Guys get more comfortable and confident; you hope that’s the case.”
Brownell, 49, has been working regularly with sports psychologist Milt Lowder to foster that comfort and confidence among his players. Key to those efforts, Clemson’s athletic staff psychologist helps the Tiger basketball braintrust create what Brownell calls consistent “messaging” for his squad.
“I’ll give him information on where I think our team is, what we’re doing, how we’re doing, what I’ve been talking about to the team,” Brownell says. Lowder then addresses the players weekly for 15-20 minutes. He is also available for individual conversations as desired on any topic, personal or performance-based.
“I think it’s something that’s been good,” says Brownell, an avid reader of self-improvement books by coaches and other leaders. “It’s not the single biggest thing, but I think it’s another voice.”
Lowder, sounding like a coach, stresses “keeping your dreams greater than your memories” and trying to focus on what the team can control. That includes taking ancient losing streaks in stride. “We don’t let what’s happened behind us set a limit on what is to come,” the psychologist said bravely as the team prepared to play at Chapel Hill.
Last year, amidst the rash of close defeats, Brownell turned periodically to Lowder. This season, anticipating “ramifications we can’t measure,” the coach sought increased access to Lowder’s services.
Brownell, in his eighth year at Clemson and on a bit of a professional hot seat, envisions those effects occasionally tipping the competitive scales in the Tigers’ direction. “Last year, losing so many close games, what if he had been working with our team more regularly and he helped one kid feel better about himself, and that one kid made one more shot or two more shots in a game and it helped us win a game?” the coach wonders. “You know what I mean? Watching your players struggle a little bit when you’re losing like that, and there’s something you can do and you’re not doing it, that’s not a good feeling.”
Lowder is a Clemson grad whose father played baseball for the Tigers. He’s worked since 2005 with a number of Clemson coaches and teams as the use of sports psychologists has spread quietly throughout college athletics. Among those Lowder assists is football’s Dabo Swinney. That relationship, and doubtless football’s success, piqued Brownell’s interest.
“If I just make you a better basketball player, then I think I failed you in my work,” says Lowder, part motivator and part counselor. “The athlete has every opportunity physically. We’re monitoring their sleep, we’re monitoring their nutrition, (and providing) our weight room, our weight staff, our conditioning program, everything they need. We understand how important the mental game is, and we’re trying to add that component to their performance.”
Changing mindsets, starting with your own, is a step toward shaping a desired future. Making a few key free throws doesn’t hurt, either.