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Pick Clemson in Your Bracket and do it Confidently

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Clemson
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional First Round
Who: No. 12 seed New Mexico State (28-5) vs. No. 5 seed Clemson (23-9)
When: 7:57 p.m., Friday
Where: San Diego (Viejas Arena)
TV: truTV

Hopefully you’re reading this in time. Hopefully, it’s not too late. Ignore the pundits and pick Clemson to win an NCAA tournament game and advance to the round of 32.

Yes, I know I’m telling you to pick Clemson to win an NCAA tournament round of 64 game. I know they haven’t won one since 1996-97 and are on a six game losing streak in the round, but I have good reason.

On SI.com, six of eight “experts” selected NM State to knock off the 5-seeded Tigers. The pundits love a 5-12 upset because of the history behind it. Heck, Clemson infamously blew a large lead en route to being upset by Villanova in a 5-12 game back in 2007-08.

They see Clemson ending their year on a 3-5 skid and attribute it to the Donte Grantham injury. What they miss is that two of those losses came without starting PG Shelton Mitchell. The remaining losses came at #9 seed FSU (OT), at #11 seed Syracuse, and vs. #1 seed Virginia.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State rides a six game winning streak. Impressive... but none of those are KenPom top 100 wins. Four are teams outside the top 200. Clemson is 8-0 against teams currently ranked outside KenPom top 100.

So back to the opening line about Clemson’s round of 64 drought. They haven’t won a game since their 1996-97 Sweet 16 run, losing six in a row in the Round of 64 since then. Fortunately for Tiger fans, New Mexico State hasn’t done much better. In fact, their streak is even more dubious. NMSU has lost 10 straight NCAA tournament games. Here’s how their post-season went in each of the past four season.

  • 2017 - First game of NCAA: 18-point loss to Baylor as a #14 seed
  • 2016 - First game of NIT: 2-point loss to St. Mary’s as a #7 seed
  • 2015 - First round of NCAA: 19-point loss to Kansas as a #15 seed
  • 2014: First round of NCAA: 4-point loss to Stanford as a #13 seed

So, what about the matchup? Clemson is without Donte Grantham after all.

The best breakdown of the head-to-head clash will come in our extensive preview which will be published Thursday morning (it’s one of our best pieces. Don’t miss it), but here’s an abbreviated breakdown:

As you may have guessed, the Aggies don’t have a ton of size. They start four players under 6’6” and one under 6’0”. Between Skara, Simms, and Thomas, the Tigers will start three players above 6’6”.

The Aggies rely heavily on wing Zach Lofton, a 6’5” scoring machine averaging 19.8 ppg. He has made more three-pointers (76) than any player on Clemson (DeVoe leads Clemson with 75) and shoots them at a solid percentage (.373). He also creates his own shot and draws fouls.

The players who have given Clemson trouble seem to be stretch forwards. Guys like Cam Johnson who have height and can beat you multiple ways. This is where the loss of Donte Grantham hurts, though it was a problem even before his injury. Fortunately, their big man, Johnathan Wilkins is not a major scoring threat, averaging under 7-points per game.

If I were the Aggies, I’d play a slow tempo (their usual tact), limit possessions, and see if I could get Eli Thomas in foul trouble. With him out of the game, the paint opens up a bit for their smaller scorers to attack.

To draw a comparison, New Mexico State reminds me of the 2013-14 Clemson Tigers. You may remember that was the team led by juniors KJ McDaniels and Rod Hall. They were an excellent defensive team, but lacked the shooting ability to stretch out defenses and make them pay for collapsing on penetration. Here’s how those teams compare.

2013-14 Clemson vs. 2017-18 NMSU

Stat 2013-14 Clemson 2017-18 NMSU
Stat 2013-14 Clemson 2017-18 NMSU
KenPom Ranking 51 55
Record (before the tournament) 20-12 28-5
Adj. Offensive Efficiency 136 117
Adj. Defensive Efficency 17 14

Just like that 2013-14 Clemson team that beat Duke, this New Mexico State squad is dangerous. They beat Miami earlier in the season and could do the same to Clemson if the Tigers fail to show up. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Aggies are a mediocre three-point shooting team (224th) and a poor free throw shooting team (342nd). That really undercuts their ability to “go off.” When they beat Miami, it was because the Hurricanes only scored 54 points. It’ll be the same situation with Clemson. If the Tigers play their game, they’ll advance.

Clemson is 10-0 in ACC play when Gabe DeVoe scores 13 points or more. If the Tigers make open looks, they win this game. They’re the better team. That’s why they’re favored by Nate Silver, KenPom, and Las Vegas.

A healthy Donte Grantham would exaggerate Clemson’s size advantage and make this pick a slam dunk without hesitation. Without Grantham on the court, Clemson is still a great pick that comes with only a little trepidation. Pick the Tigers to advance to the Round of 32 and potentially into the Sweet 16.