When: Sunday 1pm
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum
TV: ACCN (Local listings)
Clemson looked poised to move its winning streak to 5 games after running out to an 18 point lead at FSU on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, the team that had done such an excellent job finishing out games just self destructed down the stretch and in O.T. to allow the Seminoles to steal it. To make matters worse, starting point guard Shelton Mitchell was taken to a hospital after a brutal blow to his head late in the contest. Mitchell has been in the mandated concussion protocol and his availability for Sunday remains a mystery as of this writing. Tiger fans will recall that Mark Donnal was unable to complete the protocol and get cleared for the second UNC game. Mitchell has had a little more time to recover, so there is some hope he might be able to go. You just never know how players will respond from a concussion. I know I speak for all fans when I say we are thankful that the damage was not more than that.
I was interested to see how Coach Brownell would publicly handle the second half collapse. This team has had some moments of poor ball security during the season, but the rash of turnovers after halftime was the worst we have seen all year. Brownell chose to be ultra-positive in the aftermath, praising his team’s effort rather than lamenting the mistakes. He noted the heavy minutes logged by Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe against what was a deeper FSU squad (FSU had over 30 bench points). He avoided pointing out issues with the floor and officiating. Of course, complaining about those things ultimately does little except invite a fine from the ACC office, but I was still surprised at how he handled what was a supremely missed opportunity by the team.
Had the Tigers won that game, it makes the game Sunday and especially the looming trip to Blacksburg less vital to seeding and ACC tournament placement. Now the Tigers must work to avoid having all its momentum sapped during the second toughest stretch of the schedule (I still rank the Louisville, NCST, Miami, UNC, UVA, ND stretch as the toughest).
There are few teams in basketball which incite the level of hatred that Duke does. It only got worse for some Clemson fans when the Devils somehow managed to sway Zion Williamson at the last moments of his recruitment. Once again, Coach K brings a starting roster probably more talented than any other in the country. He easily has two lottery picks in his first five. The Devils will put more pressure on Clemson’s defense than any other team it has faced. UNC, Florida, and Ohio State offered some excellent perimeter scoring threats, but none of those teams can score inside the way Duke can with star freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. These two guys are forces, though Bagley has been battling an injury and missed their win over VT. The Devils are, as usual, capable of making a lot of three-pointers as well with Grayson Allen and Gary Trent, Jr. Those two exploded for 12-24 on 3’s against the Hokies. Much like the UNC games, Clemson needs to find a way to keep Duke from hitting 80 if it really hopes to win this game.
The good news for Tiger fans is much like the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils are not nearly as strong on defense as they are on offense. Duke’s losses this season can be directly attributed to other teams (especially their guards) lighting them up from the outside. Duke’s defensive issues are common for teams with as much overall youth as they have. While the new one and done era Coach K teams are more physically talented than many of his teams from 2006-2011, they are not nearly as advanced defensively as those past teams which were built around veteran guys inside. The Devils are also not nearly as deep as FSU and won’t be able to throw the same level of pressure at the Tigers for extended periods of time. Duke will still play pressure/deny man to man in the half court, but they have spent stretches leaning on the 2-3 zone concepts Coach K borrowed from fellow USA Basketball staffer Jim Boeheim.
For Clemson to win, it will certainly need Shelton Mitchell to be available. I really like Clyde Trapp’s future as a long, athletic point for the team, but it is unlikely he is ready to be the primary ballhandler for extended minutes in a game like this. With Mitchell out there, DeVoe and Reed are much more free to come off of screens in sets and in the motion offense. Elijah Thomas has to be up to the challenge presented by the front line of Duke as well. Much like NCST was able to compete down low with Yurtseven and Abu, Clemson needs Thomas and Simms to hold their own. Thomas is the lone back to the basket scoring threat for the Tigers and will be needed to keep Bagley and/or Carter occupied defensively (and hopefully draw some fouls on them).
The other major factor to watch in this game is how well the Tigers can defensively rebound. Duke is the #1 offensive rebounding team in the nation by KenPom’s ratings as well as the #2 offensive efficiency team. One unusual stat for this year’s Duke squad is their free throw shooting is only at 69%, ranking 242nd in the nation. That could be a factor in a tight game which favors Clemson.
This is a game you wouldn’t expect Clemson to win going into the season. The Tigers have been terrific at home all year, though, and have a chance to notch yet another marquee win for an already impressive resume. Winning would undoubtably cure all the ills of dropping that game in Tallahassee and prevent the positive momentum from coming to a halt in the approaching home stretch of the season.
I think of the times when good Clemson teams hosted games like this under Cliff Ellis and Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell. My father and I snuck in with the TV crew to watch the 1990 win over Duke at home, and the atmosphere was electric from start to finish. Folks who witnessed Trevor Booker’s epic dunk in the route of the Devils in 2009 know just how sweet it is to take one from the hated evil empire of basketball!