When: Saturday 3pm
TV: ACCN (check local listings)
I want to first say that I make a motion for the team to use the 90s throwback uniforms for this game. The last time we saw Clemson winning, they were wearing them. All in favor say “Aye!”
The team has hit the rockiest part of the season with 3 straight losses. Since owning a commanding lead at halftime in Tallahassee, the Tigers have seen the offense come off the rails with turnovers galore and injuries to the wrong guys taking a toll. While Clemson has competed and perhaps played with as much energy as at any stage of the season during the last two games, they don’t have anything to show for it other than losses. Coach Brownell is “hopeful” Shelton Mitchell can return for the Georgia Tech game, and I know Clemson fans are more than keeping fingers crossed that he can. The modern game is driven by guard play, and the Tigers were able to weather the loss of Donte Grantham much better than that of Mitchell (granted, having Grantham back would be awesome as well). Mitchell is, without question, the most dangerous player off the dribble for the team. He makes hard hedging and switching on ball screens a much tougher call for opponents because of his ability to turn and get downhill to the rim to either hand. Gabe DeVoe has found his perimeter looks much more contested the last two games without Mitchell helping to manipulate the defense. Tiger fans have also seen that Clyde Trapp and Scott Spencer just aren’t ready for prime time minutes. With Mitchell back, DeVoe slides back to the 3 position where he is much more suited than at 2 where he has had to play the last two games. Spencer and especially Trapp can then mix in from the bench without really needing to extend unless one or the other is having a good night. Clemson really needed one to give a boost at VT but neither was able, going scoreless in over 30 combined minutes of play. Mitchell’s presence takes a lot of pressure off those two young players.
Clemson didn’t play great in Atlanta during the first meeting with GT, but did just enough to come out with a win after nearly blowing it down the stretch of the first game. The Tigers did a good job limiting star big man Ben Lammers, but leading GT scorer Josh Okogie nearly stole the game by himself with 26 points. The Jackets were victimized by the Gabe DeVoe hot streak and saw multiple deep 3 pointers go in from #10. Clemson really needs DeVoe to regain his shooting stroke after two horrible games from the field. While GT has enough good players to be dangerous, as any ACC team not named Pittsburgh does, the Tigers simply cannot lose to a lower tier team at home. This is circle the wagons time for certain.
At full strength, Clemson matches up well with the Jackets. Without Mitchell, GT can throw the sink at Reed and DeVoe while counting on Lammers to handle Thomas in the post. When GT goes zone as they often do, they can use some of the high trap pressures Duke employed to generate the turnovers the Tigers have been frequently providing as of late. The original Clemson lineup featured five guys who could score. Grantham going down dropped it to four, and without Mitchell the number becomes 3 (but really 2 as guarding DeVoe gets much easier without Mitchell’s presence). Mark Donnal can score, as we know, but putting him in the game means taking out Elijah Thomas. Any offense out of David Skara is just a bonus and most teams are quite happy with possessions ending with Skara shooting something other than a layup. Skara’s defense has been strong, as Coach Brownell made a point to mention in his recent press conference. He helped put the clamps on Grayson Allen in the second half vs. Duke and did good work on VT’s star Justin Robinson as well. No doubt Skara will be called on to guard Okogie when they are in the game together.
It will be interesting to see how Brownell handles the rotation when Mitchell returns. Skara has been able to play a lot more 3 than before, but having Mitchell means you either take out DeVoe or slide him to the 3. Marcquise Reed has had to play ridiculous minutes without Mitchell available and has had to shoulder a much larger role handling the ball. Brownell tried to steal some rest for Reed prior to TV timeouts against VT, but that backfired in the worst way in the second half when VT went on its decisive run as soon as Reed exited. By the time he got back in, the damage was done and the Tigers were down 10. Having Mitchell allows for Reed to get more rest here and there, which is very important considering how much Clemson relies on Reed as a finisher down the stretch of games.
The Tigers can still get to the top four of the ACC, which should result in no worse than a 5 seed for the NCAA tournament, likely higher. Clemson has to win this game, snap the losing streak, and welcome FSU with much better vibes. Clemson should know it can handle FSU if it can take care of the basketball, and who knows what condition Syracuse will be in by that final game as they are teetering on the bubble and face Duke next. I certainly like how Clemson is defending and rediscovering the offense should do the trick to finish out well.
KenPom favors the Tigers here 70-56, though I predict a much closer game myself.