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Hoops Preview: Clemson hosts UNC

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Can the Tigers Take Down UNC This Time?

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When: Tuesday, 7pm
Where: Littlejohn
TV: ESPN

I’ll certainly take the road win over Georgia Tech from Sunday and it keeps the Tigers on track for the NCAA tournament and a good seed, but I have concerns for sure moving forward. I feel for Brad Brownell, who has been a target of heavy criticism from our site over his career and from me at times, because he put together a very nice team this year despite losing the best player from the previous 2 seasons. The team has improved a great deal defensively and late game execution/toughness has also been significantly better (though the GT game felt more like survival than great execution). The blow dealt to the team with the loss of Donte Grantham is one that is understandably resonating. It certainly didn’t help when potential program changer Zion Williamson spurned the Tigers for Duke on that same day. While Zion can’t help Duke or anyone else this year, the positive vibes growing around the Tiger program would be palpable even with Grantham’s misfortune had he pledged for Clemson. Nevertheless, the team still has its goals on the table and has to deal with the adversity with UNC coming to town. We all will be anxiously awaiting the news on Mark Donnal who is being evaluated for a concussion. Losing him for this game would really hurt the Tigers and put incredible pressure on Elijah Thomas to play heavy minutes and avoid foul trouble. We simply don’t have a backup center beyond Donnal.

Clemson recovered from a horrific offensive outing at UVA with an efficient 14 assist to 7 turnover performance against GT. Clemson’s success/failure this year can be attributed to ball security more than anything else. The biggest issue with losing Grantham is with Donte’s ability to handle the ball. Aamir Simms is an exciting prospect but is not nearly the total offensive package that Donte was. Simms also struggled defensively vs. GT and will need to be better there vs. UNC. If Simms can just rebound effectively and guard while pitching in a little offense here and there, Clemson can still play at a high enough level to win games like this. Clemson’s defense simply has to be better this time out after being torched for 15 made 3’s in the first meeting (won 87-79 by UNC).

This UNC team is good, especially offensively (perhaps their most dangerous shooting team in a long time), but is not nearly the defensive team it was last year. They just got ripped by NCST for 95 points in an OT game after surrendering 80 in a loss at VT. Clemson needs to keep this game in the 70s to win, IMHO, and if UNC tops 80 I don’t see Clemson keeping up.

The Tarheels are a wounded animal right now and jumping on them early could go a long way to pulling it off. We learned that UNC can’t really guard Elijah Thomas one on one in the first game so the Tigers must look to play through him. Thomas should expect help when he gets it inside and make the proper decisions on trying to score vs. moving the ball back out. Marcquise Reed is fresh off a career high 11 assists vs. GT after having some very poor outings in terms of turnovers. His ability off the bounce can create for himself as we have seen repeatedly, but he can also open things up for others. How Reed and Mitchell work to counteract Berry and Johnson will be big. Johnson’s size at the guard spot really gave the Tigers fits in game 1 as he exploded for 21 points (11 above his average). This offset a relatively quiet night from leading scorer Luke Maye in game 1.

While Grantham had an off night offensively against UNC in game 1, he was effective in limiting Maye at the four position. Maye has put up 23 and 31 respectively in the last two games. I expect the combination of Simms and Skara to draw most of the work on Maye, but the times UNC goes small and uses Maye at the 5 is something to worry about, especially if Donnal is not available. The Tigers used some 2-3 zone in the second half in Chapel Hill with some positive results and may have to lean on it some this time to possibly protect Thomas inside. The challenge with zoning UNC is keeping the number one rebounding team in the land off the offensive glass.

I would really love the Tigers’ chances in this one if Donte was healthy (along with Donnal). The Tigers are unbeaten in Littlejohn, and hopefully the Tiger students and fans will come out strong (limit the baby blue incursion in the stands) and help push the team over the top in this critical matchup of teams battling for position behind UVA in the standings. Winning this game could set the Tigers up for a four game streak with games against ACC cellar dwellers Wake and Pitt upcoming. I give the Tigers an even money shot to win if Donnal can go, but drop that to around 40% if he can’t. KenPom has the Tigers winning 74-72, so they see it as a coin flip game themselves.