Clemson (16-7) and Rutgers (15-11) square off in the round of 64 on Friday night at 9:20pm ET on TBS. It is Clemson’s first tournament appearance since their 2017-18 Sweet 16 run in which they beat New Mexico State and Auburn and pushed Kansas to the brink. Rutgers makes their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991.
The 7-seed Tigers and 10-seed Scarlet Knights enter the tournament with similar resumes in some ways. Both teams did a lot of their heavy lifting in the first month of the season. Clemson started 9-1 with wins over Purdue, Maryland, Alabama, and Florida State. Rutgers started 7-1 with wins over Purdue, Maryland, Illinois, and Syracuse. Both then hit a skid with the Tigers losing three of four and Rutgers losing five in a row. They each managed to steady the ship, and picked up a few more quality wins (IU 3x and MSU for Rutgers; UNC, ‘Cuse, and GT for Clemson) and suffered one ugly loss each (Nebraska for Rutgers, Miami for Clemson). They both enter this game 3-2 in their five games, not playing their best, nor struggling in a major way.
To help us look ahead to the big matchup, we connected with Aaron Breitman from SB Nation’s Rutgers site, On the Banks.
Ryan: What was your initial reaction to Rutgers’ seeding and draw with Clemson being their opponent? How has your view evolved as you’ve investigated Clemson further since selection Sunday?
Aaron: This was probably the best case scenario for Rutgers as they were trending towards the 8/9 game by most projections and because the Big Ten has two no. 1 seeds (Illinois and Michigan), that would have meant a potential win in the first round would have led to little hope against Gonzaga or Baylor in the second round.
As for drawing Clemson, I’d say it’s a favorable matchup due to style. Playing a slow-paced team with smaller guards that is not explosive on the offensive end is a good situation on paper. However, that by no means this will be an easy opponent or game for Rutgers.
In looking at Clemson in more detail, I think they are very similar to Rutgers in that both teams played at their best in December, they have the same 3-1 record against common opponents and are both strong on the defensive end. I think this is a pretty even matchup that is going to come down to which team executes better on Friday night.
Ryan: A cursory look Rutgers’ team statistics shows they struggle from three and like to take most of their shots from inside the arc. What does Rutgers need to do on offense to score on the Tigers defense, which ranks 20th in adjusted efficiency.
Aaron: Rutgers has struggled with an identity crisis for most of the season. They began the season shooting 39% from three-point range in the first 8 games of the season, but they became over reliant on the deep ball. They can make threes when they make the extra pass off of kick outs on drives and in transition. However, the Scarlet Knights have a tendency to lag around the perimeter and shoot threes without much flow on offense. They have routinely started games missing its first five or six shots from behind the arc.
RU needs good ball movement in the air and they need to attack the rim off the bounce. Being active in the halfcourt with cuts and screening action is key as well. Running the offense through big man Myles Johnson has been effective at times and I think it would be smart to make that a priority again against Clemson. He is a good passer and makes good decisions as to when he should take it to rim on his own versus finding open teammates along the perimeter.
Another key is getting out in transition, as Rutgers has players that excel on the break like Jacob Young and Montez Mathis. If they can get some easy baskets in transition off of turnovers, it will give Rutgers a better chance to win as opposed to needing to execute solely in the halfcourt most of the game.
Ryan: 6-6 Ron Harper Jr. (son of the NBA PG) and point guard Jacob Young average 15.4 and 14.4 points per game respectively to lead the way for the Scarlet Knights. What type of threat do each of these athletes bring to the game?
Aaron: Ron Harper Jr. is talented player who is still figuring out his strengths. He shot 50.0% from three on 50 attempts through the first 7 games of the season, but it wasn’t sustainable and he actually became too perimeter focused because of it. He can be very effective in attacking the rim and he is shooting 56% from two-point range this season. Harper Jr. is able to knife his way through the defense in the paint and finish in traffic as he as great body control. He has been a very good free throw shooter but needs to get to the line more. Rutgers is also a better team when he rebounds, as they are 9-1 when he grabs seven or more boards.
Jacob Young is a roller coaster of a player. He can dazzle you one moment and frustrate the hell out of you the next. He can make some incredible steals and score off the bounce, but he can also become a turnover machine and foul too often because he is forcing it. He is the best penetrator Rutgers has had in years and when he is focused as a distributor first and scorer second, the offense is at its best. Young has a tremendous first step and is an excellent on the ball defender.
Both players can be a little streaky, but when one or both of them is on their game, they make Rutgers much harder to beat.
Ryan: Rutgers has been excellent defensively (18th in efficiency). What makes them so effective and how do you expect them to defend Clemson?
Aaron: This team has big guards who can pressure the ball and get into passing lanes. They led the Big Ten in both steal and block rate, as they make teams uncomfortable and force them into situations that lead to turnovers. The key is Myles Johnson as a rim defender, as he empowers the guards to be aggressive out front because he is waiting in the wings to bail them out if necessary. He is an elite shot blocker and rebounder.
Rutgers also will show three quarters and fullcourt pressure throughout the game to make the other team work. Part of the inconsistency for this team this season has been their unevenness on defense, as they are prone to bad stretches. However, when they are locked-in they have held teams without a made field goal for extended minutes. A recent example was holding Indiana without a made basket the final 9:50 of the Big Ten second round game last week.
Fun Fact: Nick Honor was at Fordham two seasons ago and lit Rutgers up with 30 points to help his team pull off the upset. We are not interested in seeing a repeat performance from him on Friday.
Ryan: What are the keys to beating Rutgers?
Aaron: Getting Myles Johnson in foul trouble early on in games tends to rattle Rutgers, especially when they are actively trying to run the offense through him. Backup Cliff Omoruyi is a freshman that was a former top 50 recruit, but he missed some time due to injury and is not close to as good a defender as Johnson.
Rutgers can get sloppy with the basketball and fall into stretches of committing 4-5 turnovers in a pretty condensed period. On the flip side, if Clemson turns it over getting back on transition defense is key to preventing easy baskets.
Crashing the boards against Rutgers is something they haven’t countered well against this season. Rutgers is 12-1 when they outrebound an opponent, so beating them on the glass usually spells their downfall.
Taking away driving lanes and switching off ball screens forces Rutgers to settle for contested jumpers along the perimeter. That is not a strength and this team has a tendency to lose confidence when they miss a few jumpers in a row, which in turn leads to breakdowns on the defensive end.
Rutgers is prone to slow starts and lately have routinely fallen into 10-point deficits in the first half of games, even those they’ve won. Jumping out fast against them increases the odds of winning.
Ryan: KenPom ranks Clemson as the weakest 7-seed and gives Rutgers a 55% chance to win. Are you feeling as optimistic as Ken Pomeroy’s formula?
Aaron: I think this game is going to be a back-and-forth rock fight and it will come down to the last couple of possessions in the game. Rutgers also always plays better with their backs against the wall as an underdog, so being the favorite is not preferred. That being said, I definitely think Rutgers is capable of winning this game if they can share the basketball on offense and attack the rim, while playing steady defense and crashing the glass on both ends. If they get stagnant in the halfcourt offense or lose focus on the defensive end, it could spell trouble This is the type of a game that a mini-run for either team could be the difference. I think Rutgers knows they have a lot to prove and for a veteran team that is likely facing their last shot together as a group, I expect them to be focused and play relatively well. Of course, if Clemson plays to its potential and Rutgers doesn’t, it could be a long night. It really depends on which Rutgers team shows up.