When: Wednesday 7pm
Where: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg Va.
The Clemson Tigers refuse to truly die, or seemingly to truly live, in regards to the coveted invitation to the NCAA basketball tournament. The Tigers took out yet another top 10 team in Littlejohn, besting Florida State on a fearless drive and finish from Al-Amir Dawes. It has been both a thrilling and confounding season which now rests on the final two ACC games against teams who beat the Tigers the first time around. Everyone knows Clemson simply has to win out heading into the ACC tournament, then get a game there, to entertain hopes of making the Big Dance, which would be one of the most remarkable berths in a long time considering the roster turnover.
The Tigers are in a logjam behind the top 4 ACC teams with Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech tied at 9-9 and NCSU right behind at 9-10 following their Monday loss to Duke. Clemson has a decent path the 5-seed considering they host GT to end the regular season, while the other contenders all either play a top 4 team this week or in the case of Syracuse, would lose a tiebreaker vs. Clemson (head-to-head loss). It all has to start Wednesday night in Blacksburg against the Hokies who handed Clemson an L to start the season way back in November.
The good news is, right now, Clemson is the better team. Of course, FSU is a better team than Clemson but any given game on the road in this league can be a landmine. VT’s problem is that they really have just one path to victory because of their roster limitations size wise. They have to make 3’s at a strong clip and not get destroyed on the glass. The formula was working for a while, as the Hokies beat UNC to get to 14-5 and 5-3 in the league back on January 22nd. VT had a marquee win over Michigan State on a neutral floor and had respectable losses to powerful teams like Dayton, Duke, BYU, and UVA. Unfortunately for them, the ACC grind has gotten to them and they’ve won just once since, beating Pitt on Feb. 15. It is extremely hard to be consistent when you don’t rebound the ball well and they don’t. The 3-pointer is a great equalizer, but the Hokies have seen their percentages fall from close to 40% earlier in the year to 35.3% right now. Mike Young is a great coach and he’s milked about all you can hope for from this current roster, but you need to have more than one way to play in this league and they frankly only have one.
The first matchup with Clemson was dominated by Landers Nolley, who is an outstanding player. Nolley has had to shoulder an abnormal load with this year’s Hokies. His production has dipped as teams have loaded up to stop him, as he’s scored over 20 just once since the UNC win after doing it 8 times prior to that. Clemson will absolutely have to follow suit and make life hard on Nolley.
Wabissa Bede was the other major factor in the first outing. One of the few veterans on the Hokies’ roster for this year, Bede overpowered Clemson who played without Clyde Trapp and had a very green Al-Amir Dawes starting his first game in the ACC. Now the Tigers have Trapp back, for what its worth, and Dawes has grown exponentially during the season, as evidenced by his heroics against FSU. The VT guards should not enjoy the same level of advantage they did in game 1, which should allow the superior Clemson front line of Tevin Mack and Aamir Simms to shine.
I was very worried about Florida State because I felt they could do what GT did but with better players (and more of them). They pressured the Tigers out of most of the set actions and forced one-on-one basketball, but this time Dawes and Newman were up to the task after a combined 5-17 performance against GT. Virginia Tech doesn’t have the rim protection that GT or FSU enjoy, and thus have to rely on quick hands to get steals while packing the paint. They have to give something up, and it is very likely the 3-point line. Clemson should have some great opportunities to shoot some open looks, and this is a game where Alex Hemenway’s presence can really help.
The most disappointing part of the first meeting with VT was the rebounding. Clemson, though bigger, was outrebounded. Clemson needs to win the rebounding margin and definitely can’t let a team like VT grab 9 offensive rebounds like they did in game 1. VT is going to shoot a lot of 3’s, and the Tigers need to limit the makes to 9 or less. Once VT gets to 10 or more, they get in position to win games. It is a drive/kick offense looking to draw fouls or create 3-pointers, so Clemson has to guard the ball well and be sharp in rotations coming out.
The Tigers have not been great on the road as a general rule, but that has improved a lot in the last month with terrific outings at BC and at Pitt. Both of those were fueled by strong perimeter shooting out of the gates and the confidence that provided. Dawes has to be floating on air and feeling invincible, so hopefully that will carry over to this one.
Clemson has risen to its highest KenPom rank of the year at 63, while VT has fallen all the way to 103. KenPom still calls for a VT win here 63-62, but I’m looking for Clemson to take this one 66-58.