The Clemson Tigers (15-7) (6-4) traveled to Syracuse on Sunday night to take on the #1 ranked Orangemen (23-0) (10-0). Clemson has played the #1 team in the country on the road nine previous times and was looking to knock off the best in their own house for the first time in school history.
Coming into this game, it was easy to see why Syracuse was the number one team in the country. When I take a look at this years Syracuse basketball team, I see the strategy as "Okay, we will play your game, we will just play it better than you". Whether that is scoring 91 points to take care of Duke in overtime or grinding it out against Notre Dame or Clemson, it isn't a problem for them.
The reason they are so successful at this strategy is the players running the show. Taking a look at the Syracuse roster, I can't find a player that I have a problem with. Point guard Tyler Ennis reminds me a lot of his predecessor Michael Carter-Williams. He rarely turns the ball over and effectively runs the offense to keep Syracuse going. Shooting guard Trevor Cooney's jump shot is just a thing of beauty. Give him three inches of separation and he will make you pay for it. Jerami Grant (brother of Clemson graduate Jerai Grant) and Rakeem Christmas are forces to be reckoned with down low. The player who impresses me the most is Senior Forward C.J. Fair. Fair is very athletic and can get to the basket with a fantastic jump shot and can start and stop a run at will.
Syracuse is 23-0 for a reason and coming into the Carrier Dome, Clemson knew that. They countered with their now usual starting five of Rod Hall, Adonis Filer, K.J. McDaniels, Jaron Blossomgame and Landry Nnoko. There was a much anticipated match-up problem coming into this contest as Clemson has struggled against the zone defense all year and Syracuse runs their patented 2-3 zone to perfection.
At the tip, Clemson immediately looked for K.J. McDaniels to penetrate the middle of the zone. They quickly found him inside and hit a jumper to get Clemson on the board. Jerami Grant answered with a bucket that I can only describe as "chuck and duck" as he flipped the ball over his shoulder with his back to the basket as it dropped through the net. After a pair of Jaron Blossomgame free throws tied the game at four, Syracuse made a run.
Rakeem Christmas and C.J. Fair hit mid-range jumpers and Tyler Ennis corralled an offensive rebound and put it back for a quick 6-0 spurt that put the Orangemen up 10-4. The slow game pace was playing to the Tigers favor, but after this run I had a feeling that things could get out of hand here in a hurry. Rod Hall managed to bring the Tigers back from the brink after he pulled up from outside the three point line and nailed a three pointer while drawing a foul from Ennis. Hall calmly sank the free throw and in just one four point play a potential early game ending run turned into a two point ball game.
C.J. Fair grabbed another offensive rebound for Syracuse and put it back to answer Rod Hall, but McDaniels would beat the zone over the top with his first three ball to cut the lead to 12-11 with 12:31 remaining going into the second television timeout.
At this point, Syracuse started to find their own range from behind the three point line. Trevor Cooney got loose on the baseline to hit his first three of the game, and minutes later, C.J. Fair hit from the same spot. Clemson was staying in this game at the free throw line scoring five of their next 7 points from the stripe. After being fouled on his way to the basket, McDaniels would tie the game at 22 after sinking two free throws with 4:22 remaining in the half.
Unfortunately at this point, Landry Nnoko picked up his second foul underneath the basket and had to leave the game. Syracuse picked up on this and exposed the depth problems that Clemson has with its big men, extending their zone defense daring Clemson to send the ball inside. As the Tigers seemed unwilling to do so, they would not score for the remaining four minutes of the half, and Syracuse closed out the half on a 9-0 run capped with a C.J. Fair layup with seven seconds remaining in the half to extend the lead to 31-22.
While Clemson was hanging around, what was stopping them was the Syracuse dominance on the offensive boards. While Clemson was succeeding in pulling down offensive rebounds on their own end, Syracuse matched them step for step, the difference being that Syracuse was converting their second chances into easy put backs which is always a let down with the Tiger stingy man-to-man defense.
The second half started just how the Tigers needed it to. After not scoring a point for nearly five minutes, K.J. McDaniels buried his second three of the game off a pass from Rod Hall. Syracuse would answer with buckets from Christmas, Grant and Fair. As Clemson was trying to claw its way back, C.J. Fair's jumper with 15:40 remaining stretched the lead to 12 at 39-27 as Syracuse was starting to pull away.
Clemson would counterpunch with a 10-4 run of their own. Just like earlier, the run would begin with a Tiger three ball, this time from Jordan Roper. McDaniels would sink one of two from the foul line before Roper found him in transition for an alley-oop to get some energy back into the Tigers. The run was capped with a beautiful hook shot in the lane form seldom used reserve Josh Smith. Smiths bucket trimmed the lead to 42-37 with only 10:42 remaining.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Orangemen are ranked number one in the country for a reason. Syracuse would counter right back with a 6-0 run from Fair and Ennis to balloon the lead back to 11. Damarcus Harrison would give Clemson a little bit of life hitting the only shot that he took, a three pointer from the top of the key, to cut the lead to eight, but the Clemson offense would go cold from then on out. Syracuse ran the Clemson offense to perfection at this point trimming 30 seconds off of the clock each possession before grabbing more offensive rebounds and chewing down even more of the clock.
The final horn sounded and the Orangemen came away with a 57-44 victory. Lets take a look at what I liked out of Clemson tonight. I give Rod Hall and Jordan Roper a lot of credit tonight. It was their job to follow Trevor Cooney all night and make sure that he didn't find himself open for a three point jumper. Cooney was coming off of an ACC record setting night scoring 33 points while shooting 9-12 from three point range against Notre Dame. Cooney did hit three of them tonight, but had Hall and mostly Roper in his back pocket all night.
Tonight really showed me how important Landry Nnoko is to this offense. When he was out with foul trouble, the Syracuse zone really started to extend to the perimeter. At one point, I saw an entry pass to Djitte where the center of the back line of the zone simply backed off, knowing that he had no intention of facing up and would immediately look to dump the ball back out to the perimeter. The threat of Nnoko's presence inside is something that frees the Tiger guards to go to work, and without him it is a much different offense.
The one thing that bothered me about the Clemson defense tonight (aside from the offensive rebounds given up) was the help side defense. On multiple occasions tonight Syracuse would enter the paint from the baseline and go at Landry Nnoko. Clemson didn't seem to recognize in the second half that Nnoko was in foul trouble and that he could only go straight up. With the help side defense not rotating over fast enough, if at all, Nnoko could only go straight up and watch Syracuse go in for lightly contested layups. The interior rotation has to be fixed and cannot all fall on the shoulders of K.J. McDaniels.
Like usual, K.J. McDaniels lead Clemson tonight with 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds (four of them offensive) in route to another dominating performance. Unfortunately the offense stopped there as Jaron Blossomgame and Jordan Roper added 7 points each as Clemson, once again, shot the ball poorly finishing 34.1% from the field. Turnovers were once again a problem for the Tigers finishing with 13 and adding only 7 assists.
Syracuse's well balanced attack was lead by C.J. Fair who matched McDaniels with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds of his own. Jerami Grant finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds while Trevor Cooney added 11 shooting 4-of-10. (3-for-7 from three point range).
While Clemson did take a loss here, this is a performance that they can build on, but they will have to do it quickly as they travel to South Bend Indiana on Tuesday night to take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame at 7:00pm. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.