When: Saturday, 2pm
Where: Raleigh, NC
I’ll start this with a shout out to the women’s basketball program who has risen from the ashes it wallowed in since the ill-fated decision to fire Jim Davis following the 2004-05 season. Amanda Butler and her staff have done an unbelievable job making what was basically the laughing stock of ACC women’s hoops competitive again. I know a lot of folks don’t care about men’s basketball, much less the women’s team, but if you love Clemson then success on any level should warrant your attention. I actually watched Clemson win a game last year on ESPN3 against Boston College, and even in a win it was painful to watch how poor that team was offensively. Butler hasn’t turned these girls into UConn but folks better strap it up when they face the Lady Tigers now. In the end, I think most Clemson fans most appreciate this on the basketball front knowing that Clemson isn’t among the elite the way football is or a consistent NCAA tournament figure the way baseball and soccer are.
As for the men’s team, things still look like a major uphill climb after the Tigers blew a halftime lead and golden opportunity at Florida State by allowing the relatively poor shooting Seminoles to knock down 10 3’s. I was hoping the strong playmaking evening Shelton Mitchell enjoyed against Georgia Tech would carry over, but he once again struggled mightily to score or create consistently for others. It is a baffling turn of events to see a guy knocking on the door of All-ACC to struggle the way he has. NCSU comes in ranked, which has been a bad sign for this year’s Tigers who are winless against top 40 Ken Pom foes.
The Tigers were preseason #14 in KenPom’s ratings but have slid all the way to 51 heading into this game. Much of the positive momentum Brad Brownell gained from last year’s great season has eroded into either skepticism, anger, or indifference from many Clemson fans. All is not yet lost, but the team must show it can win a game like this to deliver the hope it can rebound into an NCAA tournament level team. Heck, they need to look no further than across the state to Frank Martin’s once moribund U of SC Gamecocks who have risen from the ashes to contend in the SEC.
NCSU is on the upswing in Kevin Keatts’s second season at the helm. He has brought an approach not dissimilar from what former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell brought to Tigertown in that the Wolfpack like to full court pressure and play more uptempo basketball. The pressure will be on Sheldon Mitchell, in particular, to handle this pressure and attack it for the easy looks you can find if you can break it. If the Tigers get the turnover bug as they have from time to time this season, things could get ugly.
I think Keatts was a very good hire for the Pack as he brings a style that differs from those of their triangle rivals UNC, Duke, and Wake. None of those three are heavy pressing teams and NCSU probably isn’t going to get that far trying to copy cat Duke or UNC. Pack fans are pretty ravenous on the basketball side and Keatts’s approach has fed into that. The environment will be hostile for certain, but you would think a veteran team like Clemson’s would be able to handle it.
Meanwhile, Brad Brownell continues to fight to win the hearts and minds of Clemson nation. My interactions with him and his staff have been nothing but positive, so I am certainly pulling for him to get things going again and succeed, but from a journalistic perspective, I have to entertain the notion that it isn’t going to get turned around and next year could be very bleak. I’m not sure what has been missing from this year’s team other than the presence of Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham. Something else feels present, and it probably started when Zion Williamson spurned the Tigers for Duke. Bringing Zion onto this team would have added a level of juice and anticipation probably not seen since Rick Barnes’s first Midnight Madness in Clemson. The Josiah James to Tennessee decision took even more wind out of the sails and put even more pressure on this current team to perform before leaving town.
No doubt Brad Brownell has had his share of bad luck this season with some injuries, and he’s had some things go against him in the past such as K.J. McDaniels going pro early and likely costing him an NCAA tournament level team. However, at some point you have to make your own luck at this level and this staff needs to get that going sooner rather than later.
The Wolfpack personnel, like most ACC opponents Clemson faces, features more highly rated guys as a general rule. The Pack feature 6 guys averaging from 9 to 14.3 points per game. They play at a top 20 pace and offensive efficiency thanks to having skilled and fast guards like Markell Johnson, Braxton Beverly, and Torin Dorn. This is a game where Clemson’s guards will have to at least break even and allow the one true matchup advantage, Elijah Thomas inside, to make the difference. Thomas played very well against Florida State but subpar outings from Reed and Mitchell ultimately doomed the Tigers.
I’d love to have optimism heading into this game. If it was in Littlejohn, I’d be much more inclined to like the Tigers to win. However, Clemson has not been good on the road and has been worked over in the second half against Duke, Syracuse, and Florida State. What look like solid gameplans in the beginning are just not sustained by the team or properly adjusted as the opponent adjusts.
One advantage Clemson might enjoy is NCSU having less prep time due to playing Louisville on Thursday on the road while Clemson has been off since the loss in Tallahassee on Tuesday night, but it’s hard to pick Clemson on the road here. KenPom gives the Tigers a 28% chance and predicts 78-72 Pack.