When: Tuesday 9pm
Where: McCavish Pavilion
A few weeks ago after the Syracuse win, I stated that if Clemson could go 4-2 in the next six games that I would be very happy, but 3-3 would be OK and keep things afloat. After the disaster against Wake Forest, it seemed just going 1-5 would be a stretch, but the team has found another gear and put together 3 of the best games we have seen from Brownell teams in a row. Clemson’s dominant win at Boston College evened things up at 3-3 and keeps a slim ray of light peeking through the door to the NCAA tournament. Why you ask?
Clemson has two major Quad 1 wins with a chance at a third on Saturday (vs. FSU), along with any opportunities the ACC tournament may present. If nothing else, a bid to the NIT is well within sight if the team can finish above .500 overall. That would be a positive for a team that came into 2019-2020 having to replace the vast majority of its production from the previous two seasons.
I’ve stated before that this team can defend (as is usually the case for Brownell teams) and if they could just score at a 5-10% better clip, they would be dangerous. Well, they have certainly gotten that 5-10% boost (and then some) with putting up 72, 77, and 82 over the last three games. I trace this explosion back to the back end of the Wake game when Brownell inserted NEO, aka Alex Hemenway, into the lineup. While the team wasn’t able to rally for a win, Hemenway put up a 124 offensive rating (by far the best on the team that night) as the Tigers scored at twice the clip that they were doing the 3 quarters of the game prior. Hemenway followed that up with his career-high 16 vs. Notre Dame after getting very little time in the loss at UVA. His ability to knock down open 3’s and be pretty good even in tight windows seemed to open everything up.
Other guys, particularly Al-Amir Dawes, began shooting the ball at a much higher clip than what we had been seeing. John Newman has found more space to attack the rim. Trey Jemison has found more solid footing in his role, especially when he and Hemenway are on the floor together. Aamir Simms was already playing at a high level before all of this, but now he is getting the help he needs on the offensive end.
Now, I don’t think that we can expect Clemson to score in the 80s as a regular thing, but just getting over 60 is almost always the key to victory with Brad Brownell teams. Dawes has blossomed, which has allowed the staff to not have to rely on Clyde Trapp when he isn’t playing very well (see his long stretches on the bench at BC). As we know from football, having competitive depth makes a HUGE difference in creating consistency. Trapp knows now that he isn’t going to get the minutes he wants just because he is a veteran and there isn’t anyone else. This is the same with Newman. Now the guys are playing with a level of confidence on offense that has been rare to see these last ten years. The off the ball action has been superb and we aren’t seeing the hurried forces at the end of the shot clock that happened so often earlier in the season.
Clemson is going to need that travelling to Atlanta to face an improved GT squad. GT has become one of the best defensive teams in the ACC, ranking just two spots behind Clemson. Jose Alvarado is a serious candidate for All-ACC defense and will certainly pose a threat to slow down Dawes. Alvarado and Michael Devoe (no relation to Bobby Buckets) form a strong backcourt, while James Banks is one of the best rim protectors in the league. GT has a win over Louisville in recent weeks and was able to go handle Wake in Winston-Salem whereas the Tigers could not. They are one of the teams making up the jammed middle of the ACC, and Clemson desperately needs to separate itself from that pack before the ACC tournament for its postseason hopes. GT is top 100 by the metrics and would be a quality road win to push Clemson to that magical top 50 cutoff line.
GT features more zone than a lot of ACC teams typically do (outside of Syracuse). We all know how badly Clemson fared against Wake’s matchup zone in Winston-Salem. GT will run some 1-3-1 half court traps, 2-3, and man to man. They are not a very good 3 point shooting team, ranking 311th nationally. Clemson will need to guard Alvarado and Devoe the way they did the guards from Pitt, which is keep them in front, force them to shoot from deep, and not let them make a living at the foul line. Clemson will also need to work to keep James Banks and Moses Wright off the offensive glass, as both are active bodies inside who like to go get it.
Part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Clemson to have a horrendous shooting night to regress to the mean we are accustomed to. However, having a guy like Hemenway to put out there eases my concerns because he is very unlikely to shoot poorly if provided adequate looks. Even if he isn’t given good looks, that will open space for others to drive or find open shots. Dawes definitely benefited from that in the first half at BC as they loaded up to take Hemenway away and left him open as a result. All these games are really big for postseason hopes, but if Clemson can keep it going with a win in Atlanta, it really sets up a major opportunity against an excellent Florida State squad in what should be a rocking Littlejohn. If nothing else, the fun factor on this team has gone way up.
KenPom calls for a narrow GT win 64-62, but I’ll say if Clemson breaks 60 points they are winning this game.