When: Saturday, 4:00pm
Where: THE Littlejohn Coliseum
TV: ACC Network
OVERVIEW: It was certainly hard to see Clemson and Pitt throwing down to decide the ACC's fifth seed back on January 21st when the Panthers blew the doors off of the Tigers 76-43. Since then, Clemson has emerged from the Road to Perdition with going 4-2. Meanwhile Pitt has struggled to a 2-5 record in their last 7. It has been a crazy couple of weeks in the ACC with teams like NC State, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest landing huge wins over the upper tier of the league. It has been just another reminder to savor each and every victory you secure in the ACC and to take nothing for granted. The margin of error is pretty small at this juncture of the season. You can say this is the biggest hoops game for the Tigers since Brad's first season at the helm. The 5th seed, 20 regular season wins, and cracking that door to the NCAA tourney open a bit wider are all on the line Saturday. There is no reason at all for Littlejohn to NOT be packed and rocking for this one. We'd call it senior night if there were any seniors (still amazing to me).
LAST TIME: As we all know, the last time these teams met Clemson got pounded. Pitt put on a clinic in sharing the basketball and being efficient on offense (24 assists to 10 turnovers; well over 55% shooting from both 2 and 3). Meanwhile Clemson turned the ball over 14 times and shot a woeful 39% from 2 and 21% from 3. Problem number one for Clemson in this game and the other embarrassment at UNC on defense was total lack of ball pressure. Rod Hall was uncharacteristically terrible on defense, Damarcus Harrison was playing with no confidence, and Landry Nnoko was getting out run and out worked by Talib Zanna who had a personal layup and dunk drill. That has been cleaned up since then and I would expect a significantly improved defensive effort on Saturday. However, the injury to Adonis Filer is something to be worried about. He has been outstanding with his on the ball defense the last month or so and is really the only guy who can provide that off the bench. Hall is going to need to put in the ironman minutes if Filer is unable to go.
THIS TIME: It is hard to figure what has happened lately with Pittsburgh. Losing Durand Johnson who was giving them some good production has been a factor. Their slide began with getting their hearts ripped out by a last second heave from Tyler Ennis from Syracuse. There have been a ton of tight games in the league this season and Pitt has come up short to UNC by 4, FSU by 5, and NC State by 7 while needing OT to escape Notre Dame. The parity in the ACC this year has been pretty amazing with only UVA able to escape an upset at some point along the way. Pitt still brings a blue collar unit into town that is very capable. They offer a chance at a top 50 win which Clemson desperately needs (Pitt ranks 50th). KenPom has Pitt at 26 currently (though somehow Maryland hopped in front of us even after we beat them and Miami). Clemson has to win this one and at least get to face one of the top 4 in the ACC tourney on Friday to have any shot at the Dance.
Pitt is still led by the versatile Lamar Patterson who is still in the discussion as a first team All ACC guy. He's averaging just under 18 a game. His matchup with K.J. McDaniels will be a big one to watch and K.J. needs to win it this time around. Patterson only scored 13 to K.J.'s 11 in the first game but it didn't matter with the rest of Pitt's players handily winning their matchups. The other matchup that needs to at least be close to even is at the 5 with Landry Nnoko and Talib Zanna. Nnoko and his backups must not get whipped down the floor in transition by Zanna like last time.
The rejuvenated Damarcus Harrison was like the invisible man back in January and we will need more of his good work on Saturday to take pressure off of McDaniels and Hall. I doubt Pitt will employ the junk methods Miami did and will trust their normal man to man principles, but it will still be a scouting report heavy on rotating to K.J. when he has the ball. There will be ample chances for Harrison to get some good looks from 3 and to attack the basket. Just hitting 2 or 3 of those perimeter chances has made a world of difference lately for the Tigers. Pitt is just an OK 3-point shooting team (though you wouldn't have known that the first time we played), so Clemson needs this area to be at least around even in terms of makes instead of the 12 point advantage for Pitt in the last matchup. Clemson is 10th in the ACC in proportion of points coming from 3-pointers (counting only ACC games), Pitt is 11th.
Clemson had a short turnaround for Miami after some heavy minutes for the starters were logged against Maryland. I think that had something to do with the porous defense we saw early in the Miami game. Luckily the guys sucked it up and did what it took to win. Now they should be well rested and prepared for this game and feeling good about themselves. I like Clemson throwing some zone looks at people lately as it has been pretty effective overall (giving us a chance to come back at Wake and slowing down Miami's hot start). I would think some switching of the defense would be in order against a team like Pitt who can really get into a groove on offense.
At this point, the formula is pretty simple. Defend like normal, rebound the ball effectively, keep the turnovers in single digits, and find three double figure scorers. This has been the recipe for victory for the majority of the season. When one or more of those are out of whack or missing, Clemson has struggled or needed a Herculean effort by somebody (usually K.J.) to win. We were Ken Pom underdogs all year for this game...until now as we have a 53% chance according to its advanced statistical formula.
Lastly, I want to think back to some incredible times in Littlejohn Coliseum that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. I was there when the Tigers took out Duke and Georgia Tech in 1990 and Littlejohn was ROCKING. I was there when Rick Barnes said we'd kick all their asses and the place was ROCKING against UNC and Wake. I was there when Trevor Booker threw the hammer dunk down on Singler's and Zoubek's goofy Dooky asses. This team and this game is worthy of such a moment when the rafters shake and the opposition quakes. You want to be there if you can make it happen to witness K.J. McDaniels put somebody on a poster or send his shot to the fifth row. This is a high stakes game in March, which is what you want most as a basketball fan and especially a Clemson Tiger basketball fan. Take it home, Samuel!