So far, Clemson has had an up-and-down non-conference slate, but has notched two good wins against LSU and Arkansas. As they sit at 6-3, the annual rivalry game (can we call it the Palmetto Hoop?) with South Carolina will in large part determine if this non-conference slate was mollifying or mortifying. So to get us ready, we connected with the lead basketball writer at SB Nation's South Carolina site, The Garnet and Black Attack.
STS: Shakin the Southland
GABA: Garnet and Black Attack
STS: Last year, KJ McDaniels had arguably the best game of his career against South Carolina. He finished the contest with seven blocks and largely took Sindarius Thornwell out of the game. This year, Thornwell will get a chance against a less dominant Clemson defense without McDaniels. What do the Gamecocks look for from Thornwell night in and night out and in this game?
GABA: Thornwell is our best player, bar none. That said, the difference between last year and this year is that he has help. He's got Duane Notice, who has really stepped into his role and become a great shooting guard after spending too much of last season pressed into a role as a back-up point guard. He's got Tyrone Johnson and Marcus Stroman helping out at the point. And the post play has improved - Laimonas Chatkevicius has come on this year in a big way as well.
Honestly, the offensive isn't significantly better than it was last year, but it's better, and there's still room for more growth once everyone figures out exactly how they need to work together.
STS: Sindarius Thornwell, leads the team in points per game (13.0), but has seen his efficiency drop since last season. This is largely due to the dramatic drop in three-point percentage from an outstanding .370 to a brutal .179 from three. Is there any explanation for this drop and at what point do you want him to stop shooting (from three)? I ask the latter because one of our up-and-coming young players, Jaron Blossomgame, is shooting .095 from three and at this point I'm ready for the gameplan to exclude his three-point shots.
GABA: He's taken 40 so far, after accumulating that 37% rate last year over 100 shots. So he's taking a lot more and making fewer, and that's an issue. I don't think there's any reason to think he's not a 30-35% shooter from distance, but I don't like the uptick for one primary reason - it's coming too often because the Gamecock offense doesn't have enough weapons. Specifically, when pass-first guard Stroman and gun-shy center Mindaugas Kacinas play together, that requires Thornwell to use 25-30% of the Gamecocks' possessions. And as you know, when usage goes up, efficiency goes down.
That said, the trade-off has worked well for Carolina, because it's resulted in a great defense so far this year, up to 20th in KenPom and holding every team but Baylor to one of their three worst performances of the year on offense (measured on a points per possession basis). If Clemson has one of their three worst performances of the season on Friday night, then that leaves them scoring less than a point per possession. Obviously the Tigers can and have won before with that clip because they've played great defense, but if Clemson is under one point per possession on Friday night, I'll like our chances.
STS: Clemson has played a bit faster this year, but still plays below the D1 average for possessions per game. In their two best wins of the season, they managed to get LSU and Arkansas to play five and seven (including OT!) possessions below their season average, respectively. Although some may advocate for a change in mentality, I think it favors Clemson when we can control the tempo - attack on fast break off turnovers, but otherwise play "three yards and a cloud of dust" basketball. How would you describe South Carolina's ideal style of play and who do you think controls the tempo in this one?
GABA: Carolina has two paces - their either trying to get to the rim immediately to get points, or they're running an offense, and there's not much in between. When they turn you over, they're going to try to get up the floor, and even when they don't, they're looking for easy baskets. But if it's not there, they pull back, and run the offense. Obviously most teams are better in transition, because that normally ends at the rim, but Carolina doesn't go for it even when it's taken away - they'll take what you give them.
I think a slow game favors Clemson mostly because it means there will be fewer possessions, and thus a greater opportunity for variance. Since I think the Gamecocks are better than the Tigers, I think Clemson wants to limit possessions to maximize their opportunity to win on Friday.
STS: In the 2007-08 season, the then OP lead Clemson basketball beat South Carolina on December 1st in Littlejohn Coliseum and was serenaded with the chant "Just like football." In 2008-09 Clemson got another football/basketball sweep, but in the five succeeding seasons, the basketball team went 3-2 against South Carolina and the football team 0-5. Now Clemson football is back on the board and the basketball team will try to capture their third straight against SC. How do you feel Clemson and South Carolina football and basketball programs are trending?
GABA: Our basketball program is clearly on the way up, particularly with the acquisition of Perry Dozier in recruiting. The Gamecocks of 2015-16 are looking at a decent chance at their first NCAA berth since 2004.
Clemson basketball seems stagnant, though I wonder if it'll ever really be great. Losing Purnell was just such a dagger, because it's hard to get people into positions at schools like Clemson (e.g., Auburn and Penn State). These schools don't have basketball traditions, don't have a city environment that helps recruits and puts fans in the seats during mid-week games. My sense is that Brownell is on his way out - if that's the case, the Tigers can't be trending well, can they?
Clemson football is trending sideways right now in my mind, and that will depend in large part on how the newly promoted coordinators handle the offense and how long Venables stays. The great part about Dabo is that you have a CEO coach that can recruit, so you'll never want for talent. But Billy Napier showed how little that can matter with the wrong schemes.
As for the Gamecocks, ask me after we lock in our new hires for the coaching staff. Right now it's in free-fall, but it can certainly be saved with the right moves in the next few weeks. That said, this is a big few weeks for the program.
STS: Most Clemson fans would say that our rivalry with South Carolina is the least significant is basketball. Does the Gamecock fanbase feel the same way and if so, why do you think that is?
GABA: I do, for a very simple reason - neither of us are very good, and there's not much history behind it. Football is king in South Carolina, and so despite our relative weaknesses over the decades (I was born in 1984, so I don't remember Clemson as a football power - sorry, old timers), i's still carried the weight of the state.
Now baseball, I did grow up with both programs at the top of the rankings, which is why that rivalry has picked up steam. If one or both of us drop off, so will the rivalry, but for now, that's what puts it ahead of hoops.
The basketball rivalry will pick up if and when we're both good and the games matter, particularly if they can start to matter beyond our borders. Right now, I can see the Gamecocks holding up their end of the bargain on that front in the next 3-5 years. I'm not so sure about the Tigers.
STS: Clemson has beat LSU (72nd), Arkansas (32nd), and Auburn (160th) so far this year. Unfortunately, those wins are somewhat overshadowed by losses to Winthrop (198th), Gardner Webb (187th), and Rutgers (157th). Similarly, South Carolina has beat Oklahoma State (18th), but lost to Charlotte (96th). What do you make of these teams so far and finally, who do you have winning this contest?
GABA: The big difference between the Clemson wins and losses and the Carolina wins and losses is that while the Tigers have played close games in all of theirs, Carolina hasn't done so, and the Gamecock strength of schedule is tougher.
All three of Clemson's losses are worse than the Gamecocks worst loss (Akron), given they came either at home or at a neutral site against teams that are worse than Akron. So Carolina's also got some close losses, but they've done it against better teams and in tougher environments. Our third loss is at home to Baylor, which is a lot better loss than the ones Clemson is carrying.
As for our wins, clearly the best win either team has is Oklahoma State, but it's the dominant fashion in which Carolina won that really makes that win sing. Meanwhile, Clemson hasn't blown out anyone this side of Florida A&M, one of the ten worst teams in Division I.
I think Clemson is a decent enough team, but they've clearly dropped off from last year. They haven't put up a big number offensively against anyone all year long (even pace-adjusted, they've not eclipsed 1.1 points per possession except against Gardner-Webb). And while they've had some nice defensive games, they've given up more than a point per possession in four of their nine games, including at home to WInthrop and Rutgers.
So I'm not a big believer in the Tigers. Meanwhile, South Carolina has been lights out at home and has been trending as if they figured things out after the Charleston Classic. Also, the game is in Columbia, and while USC has to shake off two weeks of rust, the Tigers have to take their show on the road for the first time all year.
All in all, I think it's going to be a messy, slow basketball game. But I expect the Gamecocks to put together a 10-0 run at some point, and for Clemson to never really answer. The game fizzles out, and Carolina avenges their loss on the football field, something ugly like 61-50.
All rankings displayed are KenPom statistics
STS: We thank Chicken Hoops for joining us for this Q&A session. Our answers to his questions are up on The Garnet and Black Attack so be sure to check that out, and then come back here and feel free to use this post as your gamethread during the action.