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Clemson looks for signature win hosting No. 14 North Carolina

The Tigers look for their 10th win in a row as the Tar Heels travel to Clemson.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Wake Forest
Marcquise Reed’s 21 points fueled a furious Clemson comeback as the Tigers grabbed a much-needed win at Wake Forest on Saturday.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

When: Tuesday, Jan. 3, at 7 p.m.

Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.

How to watch: ESPN2; Watch ESPN app

It’s hard to call any game this early in the conference slate a must-win, especially one on the road, but Clemson’s stunning comeback win at Wake Forest Saturday may have been very close. After looking around the ACC this past weekend - seeing Duke crushed by Virginia Tech, North Carolina lose at Georgia Tech, Florida State topple Virginia, Boston College handle Syracuse, etc. - it’s clear the ACC is going to be nothing short of a bloodbath in the coming months. Any time you find yourself in position to grab a win, you must capitalize. There will be no gimmes, no night where this Clemson team can think “We got this” and bring anything less than 100%.

The parity will never be so evident as it was in North Carolina’s shocking 75-63 defeat at Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Tar Heels, typically an offensive juggernaut, shot a paltry 33% from the field, including a miserable 5 of 26 from three-point range, and allowed a young, rebuilding Yellow Jacket team to pull away in the final minutes for the upset.

Clemson shouldn’t expect the Tar Heels to hand them a game in similar fashion and will likely get a frustrated and motivated version of North Carolina on Tuesday night at Littlejohn.

Point guard Joel Berry and swingman Justin Jackson make things go for the Tar Heels, although the pair shouldered plenty of the blame for the loss to Georgia Tech as they combined to make just 2 of their 14 attempts from beyond the arc. The Yellow Jackets’ zone defense forced North Carolina to settle for threes, and the Tar Heels couldn’t make enough of those to win the game. While Clemson is primarily a man-to-man team, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brad Brownell and Co. mix in a little zone tonight to keep the Tar Heels off balance and ideally make them force some shots from deep.

The problem with running a zone, however, would be its propensity to feed into the Tigers’ most significant weakness: allowing offensive rebounds. In fact, this is the area where I see the most decisive advantage for North Carolina. The Tar Heels are a worrisome third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, while the Tigers are an embarrassing 291st in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage.

This is troubling for a Clemson team that has allowed teams with much less imposing post players than North Carolina to crash the offensive glass seemingly at will. Keeping the big-bodied Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, not to mention Jackson and freshman Tony Bradley, from abusing them in this area is paramount to Clemson having a chance in this game. It’s fair to assume the Tar Heels will get theirs in this facet of the game, but the Tigers can’t let it get out of hand the way they have several times this season, because North Carolina is simply too talented to overcome that.

While the Tar Heels rank in the top 10 nationally in offensive efficiency, they differ from past North Carolina squads in that they’re also top 10 in defensive efficiency. They have only allowed more than 76 points once, when Kentucky stuck them for 103, so the Tigers will need a stellar effort on both ends of the court if they want to emerge victorious tonight.

Much of the onus to score will fall on Clemson’s perimeter players, as Sidy Djitte and Jaron Blossomgame - along with Elijah Thomas - draw tough matchups with the size and athleticism of Meeks and Hicks down low. Shelton Mitchell will need to bounce back from a subpar effort against Wake Forest and be an effective distributor of the ball, as well as a shot-maker himself (just 1 of 8 from the field at Wake).

The Tigers would like to see Avry Holmes carry over his hot three-point shooting from the previous game, and another soulless performance from Marcquise Reed would certainly be encouraged as well.

I really hope to see Donte Grantham be physical with Jackson at both ends to try to wear him down, and he will again need to be heavily involved in the rebounding effort. Ditto for Gabe DeVoe, who continues to stuff the stat sheet.

According to KenPom, Clemson’s chance to win this game has gone up from 39% to 47% after the weekend’s proceedings, rendering it a virtual toss-up. I would favor the Tar Heels to win the game, mostly due to their overwhelming advantage on the glass, and the fact that any chance to catch them sleepwalking is likely gone after the Georgia Tech loss. Clemson certainly has what it takes to win the game, but it will take the Tigers’ best performance to date to pull it off.