When: Friday 9:57pm EST (May vary due to previous games)
Where: San Diego
TV: TruTV (part of the expanded NCAA tournament broadcast)
Well here we are, in the big dance! It has felt like a lifetime since Brad Brownell’s first team, which was led by the great Demontez Stitt (RIP) and Jerai Grant, pummeled Alabama-Birmingham in the First Four before running out of gas against West Virginia (after a ridiculous turnaround of travel/game time, which has since been modified for play-in winners).
The Tigers march into this game with WAC champion New Mexico State being picked by a majority of media pundits to lose. This is mostly lazy reaching by folks who are no doubt loosely informed on both opponents.
Recency bias is another big factor in how Clemson is being viewed heading into this game. It all should serve as a nice piece of extra motivation for the team to take care of business in round one. This type of “disrespect” is what Dabo Swinney pines for and uses so well on the football side of things. Out of the eight writers for cbssports.com picking brackets, only one, Josh Nagel, has Clemson advancing out of this game.
What Does The Data Say?
The Data doesn’t agree with the “experts.”
Nate Silver and KenPom both favor the Tigers and the Las Vegas spread opened at -4.5 favoring Clemson.
While Clemson can certainly lose this game, the draw is a positive for the Tigers. New Mexico has faced just four defenses ranked in KenPom’s top 100 all year long, and only two of those were top 50 (UC Irvine and Miami). I think that is a major factor in this game in terms of what New Mexico St. is used to working vs. what will actually work against a defense like Clemson’s (by far the best they have seen, ranked 8th in the nation).
The Aggies have some guys who can hit some tough shots, which is what makes them potentially dangerous even if Clemson guards well (sort of like facing Boston College), but that is less likely to happen in an unfamiliar gym.
Zach Lofton: 6’4, 180
The Aggies have a dominant scorer in the much traveled senior Zach Lofton (averaging 19.8 points per game), but Clemson has an elite wing defender in David Skara to throw at Lofton and Coach Brownell has had a history of limiting top scoring threats over his career at Clemson. Skara has seen plenty of guards on Lofton’s level in the ACC, from Grayson Allen to Josh Okogie to Kyle Guy, etc.
Lofton is a guy that can catch fire and put up points in spurts. He’s a solid three-point shooter (.373), and when he hits one, look for him to fire up a few more right away. He might go 4-10 from 3, but those 4 makes can come in rapid succession.
Lofton is also adept at getting to free throw line. He has averaged 5.7 drawn foul calls per 40 minutes. He’s had 5 games this season where he shot 10 or more free throws and another 7 games where he went to the line at least 8 times. Clemson is going to have to keep him under control out top, and keep him from driving at our bigs, because he is excellent at creating contact at the rim and then finishing.
Keeping Lofton under control, or at least forcing him to take a ton of shots to get his points, will go a long way to securing a win here. The ACC team who the Aggies remind me of the most would be Miami.
Jemerrio Jones: 6’5, 200
Another Aggie to watch is forward Jemerrio Jones, who despite being listed at just 6’5” is averaging 11 points a game and an astounding 13.2 rebounds per game. Those types of numbers lets you know he is a high motor, quick leaping type of player who the Tigers will have to account for in box out situations all night.
When Jones pulls down a defensive board, he will look to lead the break. He is a decent ball handler and can get the Aggies in transition, where they can find open shots for Zach Lofton before the defense can get set. Jones is going to pull down some boards in this game, but Clemson has to pester him when he pulls them down, and make him make an outlet pass.
Clemson’s rebounding has been better down the stretch of the season, but nothing can derail good initial defense like giving up offensive boards and extra possessions. Aamir Simms will need to come up big on the glass to help top rebounder Elijah Thomas hold the Aggies to one shot.
A.J. Harris: 5’9, 170
Aggie point guard A.J. Harris is an Ohio State transfer who will offer a unique challenge due to his short, compact statue. Harris is only listed at 5’9” (which might mean 5’7”-5’8” potentially). His game reminds me some of former UGA point guard J.J. Frazier, though Frazier was slightly taller.
Harris loves to turn the corner on the high pick and roll and attack the basket, looking to draw the secondary defender and make the easy pass for the layup more than attacking the basket himself.
He is not a good three-point shooter (28%). I expect Clemson will go underneath most of the high screens involving Harris to contain his dribble until he proves that he is capable of hitting from the outside. If you can keep Harris outside the arc, you neutralize him.
Shelton Mitchell will likely be the one doing the primary defending on Harris and will need to use his superior length to bother him and keep him in front. Harris’s shorter size could mean cleaner perimeter looks for Mitchell or for others should Harris be in a rotation out to the shot.
The Aggies are pretty similar to the Tigers in that they are a defense-first squad. The Aggies defend the three-point line very well this year (ranked 8th in the nation) while the Tigers defend the two exceptionally well (ranked 10th in the nation). Both teams play at a below-average offensive pace.
Other Key Factors:
Perhaps the biggest factor in this game is at the free throw line. The Aggies are just 342nd in the nation from the free throw line (64.3%) while the Tigers rank 44th (75.7%).
That could make the difference in what likely will be a tight game heading into the final eight minutes. All three of Clemson’s primary guards are excellent free throw shooters which is a big reason the team was able to flip the script on close games this season versus last.
Hopefully Clemson will benefit from being away from the ACC officials who have made some unbelievably hard to understand calls this season on Elijah Thomas. The foul on his rebound attempt at Syracuse was among the worst I’ve ever seen. Thomas is a huge factor for Clemson’s hopes in this game and beyond because he offers an elite rim protector and Clemson’s only real back to the basket scoring option. With Thomas, the Tigers have the makeup to advance multiple rounds in this tournament. Defense travels, guard play rules, but a totally guard dominant team (like Florida, for example) will likely run into some problems in this environment.
The Return of Macquise:
The last thing that gives me a good feeling about this game and Clemson’s chances of a Sweet 16 is the fact Marcquise Reed had two below par offensive games in Brooklyn. The chances of a guy like him struggling for a third straight game is very low and he is easily capable of carrying the Tigers with his explosive scoring ability. Guys like Reed, when they get it going, are usually the ones who make the difference in March. Clemson needs Reed be his normal self and limit Lofton on the other side.
KenPom has the Tigers winning 68-63 and that is about what I think it will be myself.