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Hoops Preview: Clemson visits Pitt

What a long, winding road it has been.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Clemson
It is Neo, the chosen one.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

When: Wednesday, Feb 12 9pm
Where: Pittsburgh’s Peterson Event Center

The Tigers have allowed a lot of positive mojo their January run fizzle as a very bad loss at Wake Forest started a stretch of games where they just can’t score points effectively. Clemson has put up 44, 44, and 57 while going 0-3 in their last three contests. While Clemson’s defense has been strong, it isn’t strong enough to win games scoring under 60 points. Brownell’s teams have won scoring under 60 just three times since 2014 (scoring 59 points in all three of those wins). Clemson played a good bit better in the second half at UVA and against Notre Dame compared to the clunker at Wake, but not having team leader Aamir Simms was just a little too much to overcome on Sunday night vs. the Irish.

The silver lining in all of this for me has been the emergence of Alex Hemenway, who seems at last to deliver a legitimate perimeter shooter who is going to make a lot more open looks than he misses and can also knock one down with a tougher closeout. Hemenway was terrific against Notre Dame, with only the miss on a double stagger screen action as a moment you wish he had back. He gets his shot off quickly and seems to have a good feel for when to pull the trigger and when to move the ball to find a shot later. While he isn’t some defensive dynamo, I find him to be active and willing on that end of the floor, certainly adequate enough to play considering what he brings offensively. Several of these losses have simply come down to not making open perimeter shots nearly enough. Hemenway can deliver that for teams who want to dare Clemson to shoot.

Al-Amir Dawes wasn’t as good against the Irish as he was against UVA, but you still like what he brings in terms of energy and fight. It is good that he’s getting heavy minutes because Brownell traditionally doesn’t play his freshmen much and we have to wait two or three years to see them contribute usually (if they don’t transfer out before that). We haven’t heard much about Chase Hunter who has been in and out of the lineup dealing with injuries. The Tigers could use his athleticism on the defensive end especially against a guard-centered team like Pitt.

Hopefully Aamir Simms will be back recovered from a bout with the flu. While Trey Jemison gave about all you could realistically expect from a guy who normally doesn’t play more than 10 minutes per game, he just doesn’t offer the offense that Simms brings and the team desperately needs. Clemson’s razor thin hopes for an NCAA bid are gone now, save a miracle run in the ACC tournament, so now you just hope for growth of the guys slated to return next season. While I certainly don’t expect Tevin Mack to see his minutes dwindle, I am in favor of Curran Scott’s minutes going to Hemenway and/or Hunter when/if he gets back to health. Scott isn’t a bad defender, but his offensive game has really struggled against the more athletic ACC defenders he has been seeing. His offensive efficiency rating has dropped a full 10 percentage points from non-conference to conference play.

Pittsburgh has improved a great deal in the second year with Coach Jeff Capel. He inherited a disaster of a team coming off a winless ACC season. He won 3 league games last year but already has doubled that number and gotten the Panthers in the muddled middle of the ACC pack. He has his two leading scorers back after starting both as true freshmen last season, and they are showing the growth you’d expect from that experience. Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens can both get you 20 or more on any given night. Clemson will have to keep them relatively in check to win this game.

Pitt is similar to Clemson in that they are not a great 3-point shooting team, ranking 308th at 30.8%. Clemson is just slightly above that at 292nd and 30.9%. Pitt is more efficient as a team, though, ranking 101st to Clemson’s 202nd. This is mostly due to Johnson and McGowens being better off the dribble than the Clemson guards have been offensively. Clemson is the better defensive team, but that didn’t matter in the road trip to Wake. Clemson has been very bad on the road, with the one win being that miraculous streak-ender in Chapel Hill. I hoped Clemson could go, at worst, 3-3 in the stretch after Syracuse, but now 3-3 would require 3 straight wins with 2 upsets. The Panthers have risen to 78 in KenPom’s rankings, highest for them since Jamie Dixon’s final season.

KenPom: Pitt 63, Clemson 58 (68% chance of Pitt win)