It is officially the stretch run and the Clemson Tigers (16-10) (9-5) will travel to Raleigh to take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack (13-13) (3-10) on Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena in the two teams only meeting of the season. Clemson enters the contest squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble being listed as the 70th team in a 68 team field according to the latest ESPN projection. Clemson cannot afford a late season stumble as they look to keep their NCAA tournament dreams alive.
When Willie Nelson wrote the phrase "just can't wait to get on the road again" he clearly wasn't talking about the 2015-16 Clemson Basketball Team. Clemson enters the contest on Saturday only 2-4 in ACC road play this season with the only wins coming at Syracuse and Wake Forest. Clemson's road woes this season can be summed up simply by poor shooting performances as Clemson has shot only 38% from the field away from the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in ACC play this season.
That statistic is quite alarming as Clemson is going to have to shoot and shoot well in order to topple the pack on Saturday, mainly due to the lane presence of Junior Forward BeeJay Anya. Anya leads the ACC in blocked shots this season with 63, with Landry Nnoko trailing by only 2 with 61 of his own. Penetrating and getting to the rim will lead to contested shots, so look for Clemson to potentially shy away from some post contact early on.
Of course you cannot enter into a conversation about the NC State Wolfpack without first focusing on star junior uard Cat Barber. Barber seems to be in a deadlock race with North Carolina's Brice Johnson to be named ACC Player of the Year, and Clemson will have to focus on stopping him to beat NC State. Barber averages 23.7 points per game and fills out the stat sheet averaging 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game as well. Clemson may have gotten some game tape on how to defend Barber in NC State's recent loss to Virginia as he scored only 14 points and added 5 turnovers after scoring 125 points in his past 4 games. Of course, it helps to have Malcolm Brogdon.
Enter Avery Holmes. The Junior transfer from San Francisco has been somewhat inconsistent on the offensive end of the floor this season, but his defensive presence has never faded. Holmes followed up a career high 6-steal game against Georgia Tech with one of his strongest defensive performances of the year against Boston College drawing the praise of head coach Brad Brownell, who said that "He really defends at a high level" and he "sets the tone" on defense. Holmes will draw the assignment of guarding Barber, but I expect a team effort as Clemson will more than likely look to double Barber off ball screens and hedge the pick-and-roll just a bit longer than usual.
If there is one thing that you can count on from this Clemson offense, it is that junior Jaron Blossomgame will lead the way and be a consistent scoring threat. Blossomgame is coming off yet another 20-point performance after dropping 23 points against Boston College. The offensive mystery seems to be which of the Tigers many second options will break out for strong double digit efforts? In a game where Clemson may need to shoot over the top of the rim-protecting Anya, look for the Tigers to try and get Jordan Roper going early and often. Roper only had 3 points in the Tigers win against Boston College, but has scored double figures in 3 of the Tigers last 5 games, and has hit at least one 3-pointer in the last 4 performances.
While a victory over a .500 NC State team may not seem like much in terms of the Tigers RPI, do not underestimate just how much emphasis the committee puts on road victories. Joe Lunardi notes that in terms of the BPI rankings, a road win is considered 1.25 wins while a home win is valued at about 0.75 wins. KenPom only gives the Tigers a 40% chance to pick up the victory.
While all eyes appear to be on NCAA Tournament projections, Clemson cannot lose focus of the task at hand, and that is NC State. If the Tigers get caught up in the tournament projection hype, a weak performance can put you in jeopardy of a loss against any team in the ACC.
Be sure to tune into Shakin the Southland for more Clemson basketball coverage and chime in with your thoughts and analysis on the game thread during the game.