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Hoops Preview: Clemson versus Syracuse/Gamethread

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It's bounceback time again ya'll! The Tigers again try to recover from a blowout loss at home against the Orange.

Where's the Denny's?
Where's the Denny's?
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

When: Saturday 4pm

Where: Littlejohn

TV: ACC Network (AKA Raycom)

Well, that Pitt game positivity lasted for part of the first half in Charlottesville before the Cavs smacked the team around in the second half.  It has become a rather troubling trend for the team to have major issues coming out of the locker room in the second half of these games.  The UVA game marked the third time the Tigers have been either leading, tied, or within 2 possessions at the half only to see itself lose thanks mostly to a devastating run to open the second half.  We certainly didn't expect a victory on the road at Virginia, but I think most Tiger fans were hoping for an effort closer to the one at Louisville instead of what we saw in Columbia.  Now the Tigers finally return home after what seems like forever to face those guys from New York.  As I stated back in football season, I have transferred my hatred for the departed Maryland Terrapins onto the Orange so here we go.

Overview: While Clemson has gotten to start out the ACC schedule with a brutal stretch, the Orange have had it relatively easy facing VT, GT, FSU, and Wake so far.  Though they haven't dominated, the Orange have found a way to win and are tied at the top of the league at 4-0 and are 12-4 overall.  They is not as strong on defense as it was last year, but that 2-3 matchup zone can still cause big problems.  Of course, the Tigers struggle on the offensive end anyway, so just about any decent defense has the chance to hold the team under 60 points.  The Orange have to hope to race out to a great start with a light early stretch before facing a brutal run of 7 straight against teams currently in the top half of the league to finish out the season.  Meanwhile, the Tigers are just hoping to claw out any victory it can get.  The Tigers now have 4 out of 5 games at home and should hope to go 4-1 in that stretch.  That would require an upset win over the Orange on Saturday so let's see how feasible that might be.

Meet the Orange: Syracuse has had to recover from losing Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, and Jerami Grant from last year's squad, but for all of the smugness of Jim Boeheim, the man is a Hall of Fame coach and the program still is on pace for over 20 wins and the NCAA tourney.  They have done so by avoiding the bad loss, even though they have come very close on a few occasions.  Their four defeats are to California on a neutral court, Michigan on the road, St. John's who has been ranked, and at top 10 Villanova in OT.  They barely escaped games against Louisiana Tech, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest, but unlike our Tigers finding a way to lose to Winthrop and High Point and Rutgers, they found a way to win.

They are powered behind post man Rakeem Christmas who is putting up first team All ACC numbers so far at 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game.  Those numbers are around what K.J. McDaniels was doing for Clemson last year. They also return resident whitey three-point specialist Trevor Cooney (who can also throw it down) at 14.5 points per game and 39% shooting from distance.  United Nations representative Michael Gbinije is also going for 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.  One potential difference maker, 6'10" freshman Chris McCulloughwill not play due to injury.  McCullough was putting up 9.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks on the season before sustaining injury.

Let me pause for a minute while I dream about signing a post who can put up that stat line as a freshman....

So, needless to say there is still plenty of talent for the Orange to work with so the Tigers will need to play inspired ball.  Let's talk about attacking the Syracuse 2-3 zone.

Beating the Zone: One good thing about heading into this year's game is that the Tigers have been running a fair amount of 2-3 zone themselves so they will have worked against it more as a result.  However, nobody runs the 2-3 quite like Syracuse who is completely married to the defense so challenges remain.  I have actually heard Jim Boeheim talk at a Nike clinic about what things bother his zone and will share them here and also my thoughts on if the Tigers can execute those things.

1.  Attack the high post area. This is a basic 1-3-1 look against a 2-3 zone.

Here you see that either a 4 or 5 man will occupy the high post area. Normally the guards up top have to trade off high post duty when the ball is on the wings. This is why Syracuse normally tries to recruit bigger guards like Michael Carter-Williams and guys with good length. On the ball quicks are not as important as length for a team like this. Working the ball inside out through the high post is a great way to get some good looks. I would work Jaron Blossomgame there a good bit or Grantham because both can make that shot and can drive from that spot as well. Mitch McGary was great at this when he was at Michigan and gave a very good Syracuse team fits.  This diagram is a basic quick screen for the 2.  The 1 will draw the opposing 1 with a dribble over.  The opposing 4 has the responsibility of covering where the 2 is going but the 3 is screening him.  Syracuse deals with this by playing their back wings very wide and even using the 5 man to run out to the perimeter (unheard of move for normal zones).  It helps when you have stud athletes who have tremendous length to pull this off.

2. Use ball screens against the zone. If you use the alignment in the diagram as a reference, you could have the 1 dribble over to 5's side and draw the opposing 2.  The opposing 1 would need to cover the high post if the 5 dropped and the 3 came to the ball side block.  The 2 (or 4 even) would set a ball screen for the 1 on the opposing 1, which would force the opposing 4 to help up on the ball.  The 3 could then run out to the ball side wing where the 4 would normally have coverage (he'd come as the ball was dribbled over) and could get a good look at a corner 3.

Here is another look at a ball screen option, this time with the 5 running the baseline:

This one is less likely for Clemson due to having guys like Nnoko and Djitte as 5 men who are not threats outside of the paint.  However, I do expect Clemson to play Josh Smith more against Syracuse than what you normally see as he has the best face up shot of the big guys.  This is also why the first diagram that puts the 3 on the baseline is more feasible for the Tigers.

3.  Attack the gaps. This refers to dribble driving into the natural gaps of a zone defense.  Against a 2-3, those gaps are between the top two guards and the two 45 degree angle areas where 2 and 3 are in the second diagram.  Getting into the gaps forces the zone to collapse on the ball with at least 2 guys and provides chances for kick outs or dump downs to the short corner areas.  The challenge is for the penetrating guard to be strong with the ball, using a jump stop move through the gap into the paint, so he doesn't get stripped and can be under control for a pull up shot or pass. This is something Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison are strong enough to do.  Blossomgame and Grantham can look to do this as well if they are in a wing position on offense.

4.  Be patient. It is unlikely you can free up a good look on this zone the first few passes, even with some of the screen action mentioned.  Most teams use a good bit of the shot clock when dealing with Syracuse for that reason.  To combat this, Syracuse practices 7-on-5 a good bit where they have 5 out with a high post and low post to insert the ball to.  This way they have to learn to move better and recover faster.  They are always a good shot blocking team because they recruit guys that can recover to block shots from behind when folks think they have gotten the ball to a great area to score.  A guy like K.J. McDaniels would have been ridiculous in this system for that reason.  Clemson needs to make sure the ball movement is good and with purpose and try to avoid jacking up a quick 3 early in the shot clock.

5.  Pound the glass. It is usually harder to box out of a zone than man-to-man because you don't have a specific responsibility other than an area.  Syracuse gets very wide and you can get them out of position for a natural box out area, so attacking the offensive glass is very important.  This is another reason #4 is so important because if the zone hasn't moved much, the box outs are much easier on them.  To combat this, Boeheim recruits guys who rebound out of their area well.  Guys like Christmas and McCullough (when healthy) can get to balls out of their normal responsibility which helps offset this a bit.  Nnoko and Blossomgame need to be very active in this area for the Tigers to pull off a win.

Outlook: It isn't true that you have to shoot a bunch of 3's to beat a zone.  The 3 is very important to hurting a zone, but they have to be the right kind of 3.  The 'Cuse is all too happy to give up contested deep three's, especially from a team like Clemson who struggles from out there.  Getting 3's off the type of things mentioned in points 1 through 4 vastly improves your chances of making the shot or at least rebounding a miss.  Interestingly enough, in last year's contest Brownell elected to play Roper heavy minutes while Harrison got only 8.  This was likely to have the better 3 point shooter (at least then) on the floor, but Roper only shot 3-9 and 1-5 from 3.

The team will desperately need to shoot close to what it did against Pitt, especially on any clean looks it gets, to win. A victory here is not an impossible task. KenPom gives Clemson a 42% chance to win, which feels very positive compared to the sub-10% chances KenPom gave us against Louisville and UVA.

Let's hope the home rims are friendly, though the last time out in the 'John was that disaster against UNC.  If nothing else, let's hit the Orange with some good old fashion hate until we can drag them in football.