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Hoops Game 1 Preview: Clemson vs. UGA

A Pivotal Year for Coach Brownell Begins

NCAA Basketball: ACC Operation Basketball Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Where: The NEW Littlejohn

When: Friday, Nov 11th 7pm

TV: ACC Network

Fellow writer Ryan Kantor has pointed to the 2016-2017 season for a couple of years as the year to expect the Tigers to take a step up in basketball. I also harbor increased expectations for this year’s team, but some unfortunate recent events may derail some of that and keep the program mired on the fringes of the NIT. That would be a terrible blow to the potential momentum this season could create for the program now that the rebuilt Littlejohn is ready to go. The suspension of Ty Hudson looms much larger with the injury to starting point guard Shelton Mitchell. The one bright side is that the depth at guard is better than the depth in the post. An injury to Sidy Djitte or Jaron Blossomgame would be more damaging. Clemson usually starts with a cupcake but this year has the projected 5th place SEC team Georgia coming to town. Tiger hoop fans should recall the Bulldogs pounding Clemson in Athens last season during a woeful stretch of non conference play by the team. Coach Brad Brownell desperately needs to find a remedy to what has been habitual slow starts for his teams in recent years. Protecting the home court on Friday is paramount and would provide a quality win right off the bat.

Looking at this year’s UGA squad, the guy that jumps out at you right away is junior post Yante Maten. Maten is the go to guy for the Bulldogs heading into this year and put up a career high 33 in the NIT win over Belmont last season. He is fully capable of putting up 20+ and a double double to boot, so controlling him inside will be very important. UGA is not as seasoned at guard this year as they were last year as they have to replace Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, but they still have small but effective JJ Frazier back to run the point. Frazier had an impressive 119.8 offensive efficiency rating last year. For comparison, Jaron Blossomgame’s rating was 118.7 last year. The Holmes vs. Frazier matchup will be an important one to watch and will likely determine the winner of this year’s game. Clemson actually did a good job against Frazier and Maten last year, but Gaines and Mann had big nights and the Tigers were abysmal on offense. Georgia, like Clemson, is hoping to break through to the NCAA tourney after making the NIT last season. This game could go a long way to determining which team is able to get that bid in March.

The one sure fire NBA talent on the floor Friday is Blossomgame, and Clemson will need him to perform on that level with Mitchell sidelined. Jaron can expect extra attention defensively which should open up things for guys like Holmes and Marcquise Reed to get open looks from 3. Clemson has relied more and more on the 3 ball for offense the last two seasons, with varying success, and that will likely continue this year. With Landry Nnoko gone, there aren’t many back to the basket options outside of Jaron until Elijah Thomas becomes eligible. Clemson will look to its motion offense and ball movement to create scoring opportunities in the half court. However, Brownell’s teams usually hang their hat on defensive prowess and this team needs to take a step up after a poor year defensively by Brad’s standards last year. The lack of size at guard when Holmes and Jordan Roper played together hurt the Tigers defensively a year ago. There is more size and depth there now, but with Hudson and Mitchell out, Holmes will be asked to log heavy minutes while drawing the top UGA perimeter threat. Several of Clemson’s bad losses last year were due more to the defense falling apart than the offense. Clemson was content to get into shooting contests with UMass and Minnesota and couldn’t keep up.

This game, for me, is truly a toss up now with Mitchell out. UGA is a capable team and has a very good point guard and post threat, which can make any team dangerous. Clemson has had a couple of days to adjust for Mitchell being out and luckily has a veteran in Avry Holmes to step up. It is imperative that Holmes and Djitte avoid early foul trouble as they are the best perimeter and post defenders on the roster. It will be interesting to see what Brad does at point when Holmes is out of the game. DeVoe is a likely candidate, but we could see the team play through Blossomgame as a point forward as well. If Donte Grantham has taken a step from last year to now, especially in his physicality, the Tigers should have enough to win this game even without Mitchell. If Grantham remains content to stay on the perimeter shooting three’s, Clemson’s fortunes will be determined by his effectiveness there. He was awful in Athens last year.