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Golden Opportunity

Can the Tigers at last rid themselves of the dreaded Tarhole Curse?

Unhappy Roy
Unhappy Roy
Streeter Lecka

There's an old blues number that the immortal Diamond David Lee Roth covered back in the 80's with Stevie Vai on the guitar called "Tobacco Road".  The first verse goes like this:

"I was born, in a trunk; Mama died and my daddy got drunk; left here to die alone; in the middle of Tobacco Road..."

Those bleak lines pretty much sum up the miserable and infamous losing streak in Chapel Hill for the Tiger hoops program.  Now those faithful Orange Bleeders who stick with the team during basketball season have to annually hear the talking heads of ESPN and Raycom continually pound us with the numbers.  We are left to stew over the memories of past opportunities blown or flat out stolen from the Tigers by the men in stripes.  It has been repeatedly mentioned by readers of this site that the entire 2013-14 basketball season will be automatically branded a success if this team can once and for all leave the Dean Dome victorious.  I know I've told others that I would accept losing every other game left on the docket just to get this win.  Much like UVA finally getting a win over our football program in 1990, a win tomorrow could and should lead to a few wins here and there in Chapel Hill going forward.  Nearly all Clemson fans know that UNC will field a better and more talented team on the hardwood just about every single season, so winning games at UNC will always be a rare feat, but it needs to be an achievable feat because it has been done before.  Having a football championship as a goal is always on the radar at Clemson because it was done before.  With one win, Brad Brownell can cement his name in Clemson history even if his tenure doesn't surpass those of Rick Barnes, Oliver Purnell, or even Cliff Ellis and Bill Foster.

This is one of those golden opportunities that come around every so often when a traditional powerhouse like the UNC basketball program has a down season.  This is certainly the most beatable Tarhole squad of the Roy Williams era.  They still have some great talent and have shown it in flashes against some top competition, but their weaknesses have been exposed as the season has progressed and it has become increasingly harder for them to find wins, even at home.  It will not be easy, as in years like this you should expect UNC to play with increased vigor for fear of being the team that lost the streak.  One of my most painful hoops memories in this series is not the four on the floor foul fest under Rick Barnes or even the blown double digit lead against the eventual national champions under Oliver Purnell, but the inexplicable blowout losses to the pitiful UNC team that won 8 games total and only 4 in the ACC (2, of course, were against us) when Larry Shyatt was coaching.  IUPUI won in the Dean Dome that year and we couldn't.  And we didn't just lose, we got boat raced while legendary Tarheel flop Jason Capel looked like Michael Jordan.  Those other losses mentioned were against very strong UNC teams with multiple NBA guys starring for them.  This UNC squad isn't as bad as the one Shyatt's crew lost to, but it is in the conversation as one of the worst UNC teams of the last 20 years.  Better still, the matchups in this game look good for Clemson from my point of view.  Let's explore those now.

Clemson, as we all know, is a very good defensive team.  Pitt game aside, the Tigers are among the best in the nation defending the 3-point line and everywhere else, for that matter.  Meanwhile, without PJ Hairston, the Heels are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams around.  Ken Pom statistics reveal that UNC continues to push the ball as they have always done under Roy Williams with a pace ranked 26th in the land, but are only ranked 121st in adjusted offensive efficiency.  I never thought I would live to see the day when Clemson enters this game as the better 3-point shooting AND better free throw shooting team.  The FT shooting difference is incredible  thanks to the Tigers having the best year from the stripe in the modern era and UNC stinking it up at a 341st ranked 61.5%.  I've always thought that Clemson would need to be 10 points better than UNC at Chapel Hill to secure a win.  This is usually to try to account for historically poor FT shooting by the Tigers and the usually help from the ACC's finest that tend to show up when this game seems iffy for UNC.   Looking back at the loss in 2008 when OP's best team was wearing the Heels out for most of the game, Clemson failed to put the game away from the line down the stretch as UNC made its run to tie it up and take it to OT.  That team's primary ballhandlers were liabilities from the line, especially Cliff Hammonds.  Guys like James Mays were easy targets to foul down the stretch as well.  This year's team will be sure to have the ball in the hands of Rod Hall and KJ McDaniels down the stretch and both are strong FT shooters.  Adonis Filer has also become a solid FT shooter in his own right.

The couple of teams that were problematic for the Tigers defensively featured a potentially good perimeter game.  Both Arkansas and Pitt shot it well (in Pitt's case, unbelievably well), but UNC doesn't feature a guy other than Marcus Paige that I would figure to be able to put 3-5 3-point makes on the Tigers.  The result of that is you can afford to sag your defense and really bother the inside game, which has yet to return to the usual UNC dominance enjoyed in the Roy Williams years when guys like May, Hansbrough, Zeller, etc were major factors inside.

UNC was in serious trouble last year early on as Roy attempted to run his usual stuff with a traditional lineup early in the year.  It was only when he decided to go small and move McAdoo to the 5 and play four guards around him that they turned their season around.  I saw Williams back in the spring of 2013 at a Nike Clinic speak extensively about this and he was adamant that he would return to his traditional approach this season.  Of course, the PJ Hairston situation really hurt this team as has the lack of an elite inside player.  Hairston was also strong enough to defend a 4 on the other end adequately.  McAdoo is a good player, but his development has really stalled from what appeared early on to be a sure fire lottery pick future.  He has found the going much tougher now that folks aren't having to stretch out on defense to deal with the 3-point threats, not to mention he is now getting defended by somebody other than the opponent's 5 man.  He's no Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood, that is for sure.  Meanwhile, South Carolina native Brice Johnson has become the 3rd leading scorer on the team at just over 10 points a game.  To this point, he's looked a lot more like the type of guy that Clemson would have signed than what UNC usually gets in the post.  He's a good player with nice length and some face up ability, but has yet to develop the type of strength to really be a force inside consistently.  I know it was a blow to the Tigers to see what was three years of intense recruiting go for naught when UNC swept in late and offered Johnson (which usually always means UNC will get the player).  Wouldn't it be fitting for Johnson to be on the first Heel squad to lose at home to Clemson?

The Pitt game was an unmitigated disaster, but I think it could end up being a blessing for this young Tiger squad heading into tomorrow.  They were embarrassed, and there will be added motivation on top of the usual fire to beat the team the majority of our guys probably dreamed of playing for growing up to show we are better than that team from Tuesday night.  The time is as right as it has ever been.  This is not a great Clemson team, but it is a capable team that is growing up and has some favorable matchups in this contest.  Rod Hall will be tasked with dealing with UNC's top scorer Marcus Paige, and I usually like Hall's chances on really bothering the other team's point guard to a below average performance.  Meanwhile, Clemson can throw KJ McDaniels at McAdoo if Blossomgame has problems.  McAdoo has the size to be a bruiser but actually plays much more as a face up guy and mid range shooter.  Nnoko is more than capable to smothering Johnson in the paint.  We should always be wary of the refs in this setting, and it will be as important as always for KJ and Nnoko to stay clear of foul problems.  Clemson was terribly sloppy with the ball at Pitt, and that certainly must be cleaned up tomorrow because UNC desperately needs to be able to run in transition to score like they want to score.  A grind it out half court game favors Clemson in a big way this year.

Of course, I can easily see UNC guys making shots they haven't made since early December and playing their best game in over a month.  That is the type of thing we have seen in the history of this series, but the trends going into this game really have me excited.  UVA and Miami, two teams built very similarly to Clemson, really gave the Heels major problems.  UVA is a better team than us at the time due to their superior 3-point shooting ability, but if the Tiger perimeter game gets it going at all, UNC will be in trouble.  They are not elite defensively just as Duke is not, and we all saw that be a big factor in the Tiger win in Littlejohn.  Things must have seem so much easier that night after dealing the the Goliath front line of FSU.  Likewise, the Tigers should feel things to be much easier on offense after dealing with Pittsburgh's physical man to man.  UNC is also not nearly as surgical on offense as the Panthers.  KJ will need to be KJ, and Hall has to get back to the efficient point guard we usually expect, then a third guy must emerge in some way.  If that happens, cats and dogs will be living together because the baby blue monkey will finally be slain.  Here are my win percentage predictions based on points allowed.

UNC less than 70 points=65% chance of a Tiger win

UNC less than 60 points=90% chance of a Tiger win

UNC less than 50 points=99% chance of a Tiger win

UNC will need to break 70 to really start to feel good about winning this game in my opinion.  This is something only 2 teams have done to Clemson this year and they went a combined 18-31 from 3-point range in those games.  I just can't see UNC being able to shoot it at that rate from distance.  The usual UNC staples of rebounding dominance and FT shooting dominance are just not in play this time around.  They still rebound it pretty well, but Clemson is not far behind according to Ken Pom stats:

Off. Reb. %: 37.9 19 31.9 195 for UNC

Off. Reb. %: 36.3 44 30.4 124 for Clemson

Pomeroy's advanced predictor has this game going to UNC 62-58 (with a 35% chance of a Clemson win), but to this point UNC has only gone 1-5 this year when scoring less than 70 while Clemson is 13-3 when allowing under 70 this year.  In those 3 losses Clemson was way below UNC's effective FG% defensive average of 44.9% and 2 of those 3 teams (FSU and Pitt) are ranked ahead of UNC defensively.  UNC simply does not want to play a game in the 50s and 60s and Clemson is more than comfortable doing just that.

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