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Clemson Basketball Preview: Tigers Host ACC Leader Virginia

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The 12th-ranked Tigers return to action after a COVID delay.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

When: Saturday, 6pm
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum
Who: Virginia 8-2 (4-0)
TV: ESPN

Clemson has been off, missing two scheduled games against UNC and Syracuse, due to COVID-19 issues in the program. This is something that has struck several teams across the country and caused a lot more game postponements relative to football season. Basketball features smaller rosters, so just one positive test will usually knock the whole team out of action for a week. Clemson saw its ranking improve to 12, actually benefitting from not playing in that way. Alabama’s success helped as Clemson owns a win over the current SEC leader. Purdue - another resume win for Clemson - has been up and down, but has quality wins over Ohio State and on the road against Michigan State. Maryland won at Wisconsin, so the out of conference wins Clemson put together in 2020 are paying dividends. Also, Clemson’s only loss to Virginia Tech is holding up thanks to the Hokies having continued success themselves. #18 Virginia comes to town to offer perhaps the stiffest test yet.

Brad Brownell has had issues with both Virginia schools during his tenure at Clemson. In fairness, it should be noted that Virginia has given just about everybody problems during Tony Bennett’s time. Nobody has won more ACC games in the last five years than UVA, and they have a national championship to their name during that time. They don’t have the wow factor that Florida State can bring to the table (as seen by their 105 point explosion against NCSU this week), but the Cavs have been the best in the nation at turning games into half court slogs that they are adept at winning. It will be interesting to see how this high pressure version of Clemson matches up this year. The Cavs don’t have the most firepower in the world and can be held down, and they have struggled from 3-point range by their normal lofty standards, though they still boast a respectable 36.4%. It will be important for Clemson to continue to force turnovers as they have, but more importantly get some live ball turnovers they can turn into transition opportunities.

The best way to defeat the signature pack line defense UVA has employed during Bennett’s regime is to not let it get set up. Just like Clemson, the Cavs usually make life very difficult when they have their five guys set to defend and help one another. They also have one of the best rim protectors in the nation in 7’1” center Jay Huff. It will be important for Aamir Simms, Jonathan Baehre, and P.J. Hall to be able to draw Huff away from the rim. Clemson has to be effective from 3-point range if it is going to win this game. You will get some looks against what UVA does, but usually it is on their terms, late in the clock, and over a closeout.

UVA doesn’t usually blow folks out because their style is much more like getting slowly squeezed to death by a python. It is a little like playing against an option football where possessions are limited, so every turnover you have feels like two. Thankfully this Clemson team has a couple of guys who can get it rolling as shot makers in Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor, plus Alex Hemenway’s sharp shooting ability. Clemson will probably need two of those three to have a good night unless Simms is dominant. Hopefully, Hunter Tyson can return to the lineup and offer another potential perimeter threat. Trying to score in the paint is a serious chore against UVA’s defense.

This is a home game and the Tigers really have to protect home court to make a serious run at a regular season ACC title. It is amazing to talk about that possibility, but it is one that is fairly realistic thanks to how this team is built in the current environment. Knocking off UVA would be huge in that effort, not only because the Cavaliers are always among the favorites to win the league, but also to show that a Brownell team can beat a Bennett team when the rosters are fairly equal. Clemson hasn’t beaten UVA since 2013, the longest drought against any ACC opponent by far. The Tigers took down the Chapel Hill curse last year, perhaps the UVA curse will be next.

UVA has become a power without one and done lottery pick talent. In many ways, their model has been one I think Clemson has tried in the past to duplicate, though with middling results. I think the Tigers have now shifted more towards what Leonard Hamilton has done to make FSU a power in the league. It is important for Brownell to carve out a niche that can give this program an edge, not just be a diet version of a better product elsewhere. This team has provided a lot of hope in that regard, not just for this season but for the prospect of sustained success. Hopefully the layoff won’t hinder the team too much.

KenPom likes Clemson to escape 58-56, which would be a monumental win and a big step towards the postseason. I normally like the first team to 60 when Clemson plays, but this might be the first team to 50 wins.