Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson has strung together back to back wins against UVA and Wake Forest to get back to 2-2 in the conference. But in order to get over the .500 mark they'll need to pull off a stunner against the conference's preseason favorite NC State, in primetime on Sunday night and on the road. And while the last two wins have shown progress, they were against middle to bottom of the pack teams at home. I don't want to diminish any victory, because we'll take what we can get at this point, but a win on the road against NC State would be a big step up. It's the signature win this young team and the fans have been searching for. It definitely won't be easy.
NC State is the #14 ranked team in the country. After losing two games earlier in the season against Oklahoma State and Michigan, people started getting down on this team and wondering if they had overinflated their ranking based on a surprising run to the Sweet 16 last year. After losing to Michigan they ran off 10 straight wins, most notably against UConn in Madison Square Garden and Duke at home last weekend. However, they followed up the Duke win with a last second loss at Maryland on Wednesday when they allowed Alex Len to tip in an air ball with 0.9 seconds left.
What is it that NC State does well? Score the basketball. NC State is one of the highest scoring teams in the country at 79 points per game (11th nationally). They are second in the nation in field goal percentage at 51.5%. They shoot 40% from 3, with 3-point specialist Scott Wood doing most of the damage at 43%. Five guys average in double figures and a sixth (Rodney Purivis) averages 9.4 ppg. They have a human pogo stick (C.J. Leslie) and a bull in a China shop (Richard Howell) attacking the offensive glass down low.
That's not to say they don't have their issues. While they are extremely talented, that talent is limited to the top 6 players at this point. They really lack quality depth after the top 6 guys. Behind Leslie and Howell in the frontcourt, they either have the option of going smaller and using freshman SF T.J. Warren at the PF spot or going big by using Jordan Vandenberg, who is a big stiff with no game. And that lack of depth is important because of the foul trouble Richard Howell consistently finds himself in. He's fouled out of 4 games this year and averages 3 fouls per game. Clemson would be very wise to go to Devin Booker early and often to try to get Howell on the bench in foul trouble.
NC State can also be turnover prone. At times Lorenzon Brown can be one of the better PG's in the country, but he also turns the ball over 3.4 times per game. He'll over dribble or try to make a fancy pass where the simple play would suffice. C.J. Leslie turns it over 2.7 time per game, usually trying to drive the ball to the basket. That number would be significantly higher if the officials called him for all the walks that he gets away with.
Here's what Clemson needs to do to win this game. First, they need to control the tempo. NC State wants to get up and down the floor and use their athleticism to get easy looks. Clemson needs to slow the game down and make it a halfcourt game. That doesn't mean they shouldn't run at all, but they should selectively run.
Secondly, Clemson needs to clear the glass defensively. Howell is the best rebounder in the conference and does a lot of his work on the offensive glass. He's not going to out-jump someone, but instead uses his strength to get position. Booker needs to be physical and keep Howell out of the paint. Booker has been doing an excellent job rebounding, but this will be his toughest test. Jennings is also going to have to find Leslie when a shot goes up and get a body on him. Jennings can get caught daydreaming and give up easy offensive rebounds. If he does that on Sunday he'll end up on a highlight reel like K.J. did to Wake Forest's center earlier this week.
Lastly, we need to find a delicate balance between not settling for jumpers while not being afraid to shoot open jumpers. Clemson will not hold NC State below 50 points on their homecourt. It just isn't happening. We're going to have to score the basketball. So what I'm trying to say is that Clemson's first option should be to dump the ball in to Booker or attempt to drive the ball to the basket. If Booker gets double teamed or someone steps up to cut off the drive, we should have open shooters (hopefully Roper) that need to be ready and confident to knock down the shots. On the road at Duke our guys played scared and if that happens again we'll be run out of the gym.