The Tigers concluded non-conference play on Tuesday with a seven point win over Robert Morris, improving their record to 8-4. Wins over LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn proved Clemson is capable, but losses to Winthrop, Gardner Webb, and Rutgers stymied any serious optimism. Most importantly, a blowout loss to South Carolina made the non-conference slate a flop.
Last year, West Virginia snuck into the NIT as a #5 seed with 17 wins. If we figure that'll likely be the minimum this year, the Tigers need to find nine more wins. That means eight ACC regular season wins and a tournament win or a 9-9 run through non-conference play. To achieve those numbers, Clemson will have to come up with an upset or two and that begins with UNC.
UNC enters the game ranked 19th in the AP poll. They have wins over Davidson, UCLA, Florida, and Ohio State. They also beat Robert Morris by 44 points. The advanced stats paint a scary picture of the Tar Heels. With the exception of shot blocking (the Tigers block an equal proportion of their opponent's two-point shots and get blocked less often), the Heels have the advantage in every meaningful advanced stat.
Last year, Clemson finished the season with the fourth best eFG% defense - holding opponents to 43.9 - while UNC was mediocre at 69th. This year, Clemson has regressed to 45th (the percentage isn't as bad as the ranking seems to indicate) while UNC has improved their defense to 8th at an outstanding 40.2.
The most amazing stat though is on the glass where North Carolina rebounds 44.4% of their own missed shots. Overall, they average the second most rebounds per game in the country. That raw statistic is a bit skewed by their high tempo though. They play the 11th quickest tempo in the country at 72 possessions per game. Meanwhile, Clemson is down at 295th at 63.3. Remember, tempo isn't good or bad, it's a style and for Clemson to pull the upset they'll need to control the tempo. The Tigers have almost no shot if the game nears 70 possessions.
Rod Hall will need to play better. He scored just two points against Robert Morris and the Tigers will need much more than that all while asking him to keep up with star PG Marcus Paige.
The matchup to watch is Jaron Blossomgame versus Brice Johnson. Johnson is a great rebounder and will have a size advantage against Blossomgame. Brice Johnson of Orangeburg, SC is averaging 11.6 ppg. Jaron Blossomgame is having a breakout season. We thought Nnoko would be the breakout post player, and his raw numbers have improved from a season ago, but Blossomgame is the Tigers best player thus far. He is averaging 13.7 PPG and 8.6 RPG. It's hard to imagine Clemson winning without Blossomgame winning this matchup.
To pull this one off, we need Rod Hall to play like he did against Arkansas, Blossomgame to continue his high level of play, Nnoko to stay out of foul trouble, and Donte Grantham to shoot better than his 25.4 3P%. Clemson is an eight point underdog and KenPom gives them a 20% chance to win, so yes, I'm saying there's a chance - a one-in-five chance.
Clemson is 20-128 all-time against the Heels so any win against them is a big one. Join us in the comments below during the game. Tip off is 8:15pm, January 3rd on the main ESPN.