SUNSET, South Carolina — Clemson coach Brad Brownell is looking to fill the void created by the departure of Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of year K.J. McDaniels.
McDaniels led the Tigers with 17.1 points a game and the ACC with 100 blocked shots. He gave up his senior season for the NBA draft, taken 32nd overall last June by the Philadelphia 76ers.
For Brownell, the question of McDaniels' successor is not as significant as those that loomed over his program this time a year ago. The Tigers finished 2012-2013 at 13-18, their first losing season in nine years and Brownell faced an uphill climb to keep his job and make an impact in the supersized ACC.
Behind McDaniels, Clemson took a significant step forward in going 23-13 and reaching the NIT semifinals while playing in front of several packed home crowds to get there. Brownell was rewarded with a raise and a six-year contract extension with Clemson that runs through 2019-20.
"Last year was an outstanding year for our program," Brownell said Wednesday. "Fans really rallied around our team and appreciated a group of guys that came together and played extremely well and overachieved in a lot of people's minds."
It's up to Brownell to keep things moving forward without the team's leading scorer.
Brownell said the Tigers talk about taking that next step to the NCAA tournament, an event they only played in once in Brownell's first season of 2010-11. That won't be easy, he acknowledged, if he doesn't get improvements from several upperclassmen like point guard Rod Hall, guard Damarcus Harrison and forward Landry Nnoko.
Hall, a senior, averaged 9.7 points to finish second behind McDaniels. Nnoko was second on the Tigers behind McDaniels with 6.2 rebounds a game and third in ACC blocks with 69.
Clemson associate head coach Mike Winiecki said the group understands what's expected without McDaniels and worked hard in the offseason to improve.
"They enjoyed winning. Those guys got a taste of it and they want a little more," he said.
Brownell was gratified by the 6-foot-6 McDaniels' rise from a question-filled project as a freshman to an all-ACC first-team player and NBA draft choice. He does not believe anyone on the roster this season can match McDaniels' accomplishments and will look for collective improvement if Clemson hopes to remain in the top half of the ACC, which this fall adds 2013 NCAA tournament champion Louisville.
The Tigers had a chance to ease into ACC play last season before feeling the brunt of the league's power schools. This time, their conference schedule begins like this: North Carolina, at Louisville, at Pittsburgh, at Virginia and Syracuse.
"We have to find our identity quickly," Winiecki said.
Brownell hopes that newcomers in forward Donte Grantham and guard Gabe DeVoe can work their way quickly into the mix. The 6-8 Grantham has been quicker at picking up Brownell's defensive concepts — the Tigers were second to ACC champion Virginia in scoring defense last season — than DeVoe and could give some help to a front line that will miss McDaniels' rebounding and blocked shots.
Whatever happens this season, Brownell and his staff are confident in the stability present in the program the next few years. There are obstacles to overcome. Clemson assistant Earl Grant was hired in September, six weeks or so before basketball practice starts, as College of Charleston's head coach and took longtime Tigers director of operations Dick Bender with him.
After this season, the Tigers will be shuttled off campus to play about 30 minutes away in Greenville during 2015-16 as Littlejohn Coliseum undergoes a renovation that will cost up to $80 million.
Brownell was happy for Grant and Bender's advancement and looks forward to what the rebuilt arena will bring the Tigers.
"I said a couple of years ago even though the wins weren't what we wanted them to be that there was a lot more positive things happening than people realized," he said. "It was good to see some of that come fruition."
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