Time: Saturday, 1/18, 2:00pm
Location: PNC Arena, Raleigh, NC
As attention shifts from football to basketball, Clemson fans find their hardwood Tigers as hot as ever. After losing six of seven games to drop to 6-7 (0-3), we declared the season over. Not only was the NCAA tournament out of reach, but the NIT seemed out of reach too, as no team with a below .500 overall record has made the NIT in its current format (dating back to 2006-07).
With a tough NC State team coming to town, followed by an impossible road trip to Chapel Hill, and an equally impossible showdown with #3 Duke next, a 6-10 (0-6) start seemed like an inevitable disaster. Then we got a remarkably improbable run.
First, the Tigers knocked off NC State - the team that beat them in excruciating fashion twice last year. They then headed to Chapel Hill, where they’d never won. They trailed by 10 points with just 2:08 remaining in regulation and were poised for the 60th straight loss in Chapel Hill. Somehow, they clawed back, led by two incredibly clutch three-pointers from Aamir Simms - one to bring them within one point and the next to tie the game - and won in overtime. Then on Tuesday, Clemson hosted #3 Duke. In a weird game in which the student section was packed and raucous but the donor section was mostly empty as fans were headed home from New Orleans, the Tigers led most of the night and executed shockingly well on offense down the stretch to secure the win.
Rather than a typical letdown after the comeback win at Chapel Hill, the Tigers look to have turned the corner. Instead of being 0-6, the Tigers are in the thick of the ACC race at 3-3 and Clemson basketball got very interesting.
Now, the Tigers head to Raleigh for a rematch exactly two weeks after they dispatched the Wolfpack 81-70. In the previous meeting, the Tigers got 12 or more points from five players in their highest scoring game against a KenPom top 120 team. Clemson wasn’t especially hot from three that day, but they reached the free throw line 31 times and cashed in on 26. Defensively, they were fortunate as NC State missed 16 3-pointers to finish just 5-16.
NC State’s strength is their guards. Markell Johnson averaging 6.8 assists per game while CJ Price is averaging 15.3 points per game. The latter didn’t play in the previous matchup. The Tigers defensive weakness is in the post though, as they like to play small with Aamir Simms at center. John Newman, Al-Amir Dawes, and Clyde Trapp are solid defenders on the perimeter. NC State big man, DJ Funderburk, who comes off the bench and provides a spark, could be the X-factor.
The Tigers confidence is sky high and with the way they’re playing it should be. The offense looks completely different than it did earlier in the season. Player movement is crisper and the off-ball movement is much more purposeful. John Newman is attacking the basket and using his athleticism while Aamir Simms has finally ascended to become a worthy “best player” on the team. If they continue playing this way, they can beat anybody.
NC State’s 3-point shooting woes in these teams matchups may revert to the mean though. They’ve shot 33.6% from deep on the season and are unlikely to shoot a 23.8% clip again. They’re 12-5 (3-3) and poised to become an NCAA tournament team after returning most of their key players from a year ago.
Much like in football, where I incorrectly considered the first 11 games of LSU’s defensive performance more than their last three, I’m going to make the same potential mistake here and weight Clemson’s first 13 games more than their last three:
KenPom: L 73-66 (72%)
Ryan: L 78-70