When: Saturday 4pm
Where: Prudential Center, New Jersey
TV: ESPN 2
The Tigers will travel to the blustery north to take on the SEC’s Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday in a now crucial non-conference game. The fortunes of the team have taken a bit of a hit in recent weeks as the team dropped back to back games to Creighton and Nebraska. The Nebraska game hurt the most because it happened at home. To make matters worse, star guard and leading scorer Marcquise Reed suffered a sprained knee in the last game against St. Peter’s. Luckily the MRI did not reveal any tears, but Reed’s status is a big question mark for this weekend. If he plays at all, he won’t be at 100% and probably won’t be able to handle his usual minute load.
Mississippi State enters this game at 7-1, albeit against a pretty light schedule. The highest rated team they have seen so far is Arizona State, ranked at 45 in KenPom, and they lost that one. Their best wins are against St. Mary’s (64) and at Dayton (84). Still, this is a dangerous and capable Bulldog team who projects to challenge for an NCAA bid. The Tigers desperately need to sweep the SEC foes before facing the brutal opening stretch of ACC play the good folks in Greensboro gifted. Anything outside of another NCAA bid for this year’s team would have to be considered a major disappointment and step backwards. Brad Brownell has to maintain the positive momentum last year provided him and his program, especially with having such a senior laden team.
The team is really feeling the absence of Gabe DeVoe, who was always a threat to hit 4-6 three’s in a game. Even on off nights, DeVoe drew heavy attention on the scouting report and helped space the floor. I’ve noticed more and more teams adjusting to try to pack the paint vs. the Tigers and not worry as much about the 3 point shot. Clemson has done nothing to dissuade that approach and is coming off a pathetic 2-14 outing against St. Peter’s (who hit 10-21). Coach Brownell knows this more than anyone and has to be trying to find the right button to push to get guys like Shelton Mitchell, Aamir Simms, and Hunter Tyson going. Clyde Trapp has stepped up his game and would certainly be the man to step into Reed’s minutes depending on how those are affected. Reed has been very good from 2 but has struggled to get his 3 point shot going. I don’t think Reed needs to be counted on as the primary 3 point shooter in this offense anyway.
For those who scream “don’t shoot so many 3’s” need to understand just how critical the shot is in today’s game. The team was able to lean on Elijah Thomas to take out St. Peter’s, but the ACC will have front lines too big and deep for Thomas to dominate unless the 3 point line has opened things up. It will be very, very tough sledding against Syracuse, for example, without a viable perimeter attack beyond the arc. Trapp has been the best shooter in the last couple of games but isn’t getting many attempts. Tyson was recruited as a 3 point shooter and needs to start delivering when he gets some minutes.
Brownell has been a little snakebitten by injuries so far this season. Thomas is just starting to round into shape and practice regularly. Freshman big man Trey Jemison made his debut on Tuesday but is still a long way from being brought up to speed after recovering from an injury himself. Now Reed is facing an injured knee, but Clemson fans breathed a serious sigh of relief when that MRI only revealed a sprain. Losing Reed the way the team lost Grantham last year would likely doom the team to NIT at best.
As for the Bulldogs, they have five guys currently averaging double figures (much like the Tigers did last year before Grantham was injured). The Weatherspoon brothers lead the way and average 16.4 and 11.3 points per game. They are very guard oriented, though big man Aric Holman puts up 10 points and 8.9 rebounds a game. The Holman vs. Thomas battle should go a long way to determining how this game turns out. The Bulldogs are a strong offensive rebounding team and the Tigers are a strong defensive rebounding team, so the battle on the defensive glass is another thing to watch. The advanced stats show this to be two very evenly matched teams, much like what we saw prior to the Nebraska game, and I anticipate this going down to the last two minutes.
Right now, I think things are more about Clemson than the opponent. Brownell openly questioned his handling of guys like Aamir Simms in practice and how much work Simms has put in prior to his very quiet game on Tuesday. Simms makes a big difference when he’s putting up the 10-14 points he was doing earlier and in the exhibition games. Clemson really needs him to regain that form, especially if Reed is unable to go in this game. Shelton Mitchell hasn’t been the same player he was at the end of last year so far this year, in my opinion. I frankly think he got badly outplayed by St. Peter’s Davauhnte Turner last time out. Mitchell is certainly capable of better than the 0 assist, 4 turnover effort he put up then. He will have to be much better in this one facing quality guards like the Weatherspoons and Lamar Peters.
KenPom has the Bulldogs squeaking it out 69-68 and I’m probably leaning to a Bulldog win in the 2-5 point range at this time. I surely hope I’m wrong and we start to see that true Clemson grit that was so evident with last year’s squad.