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March Madness Preview: Clemson vs Bizarro Clemson

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Before Clemson thinks about Rutgers, they need to think about themselves.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 20 Clemson at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m tasked with writing the preview for the Clemson vs Rutgers opening round game. I’ll get to a more traditional preview a little later, and it should be pretty well informed because I’ve seen way too much Rutgers basketball over the last few years in my other writing gig for the Purdue SB Nation site. The truth about this game, however, is that it doesn’t matter how Clemson matches up against Rutgers unless they can figure out how to overcome the bizarro Clemson team that showed up in the ACC tournament against Miami.

It’s All About Aamir Simms

I may have been a little harsh on Simms after the Miami game, but only because I think he’s one of the best players in the ACC. If Clemson is going to make it past Rutgers, Simms has to be the best overall player on the court, and he’s fully capable of being the best overall player on the court.

Clemson needs Simms to attack in the paint and occasionally pop out for timely 3’s. He has to be a center that can shoot, not a shooting guard who can guard bigger guys. He’s the lynchpin of the offense, because he’s not only Clemson’s best scorer, but also their best passer. When he limits his game to the perimeter, it also limits his ability to carve up a defense with his slick interior passing and ability to find open shooters spotted up around the perimeter. When Aamir gets paint touches, the maddening stagnation of aimlessly passing the ball around the perimeter and hoisting up late shot clock prayers goes away.

Guys cut the the basket knowing Simms can find them for easy layups. Shooters spot up and are ready to fire from behind the arc, knowing Aamir has a knack for finding the open man when faced with a double team. In college basketball, if you get a team into defensive rotation, good things usually happen. Against Miami (and in several other losses) the Tigers essentially played a prolonged game of 5 individual 1 on 1 matchups, and that’s not their strength.

As I said in my recap of the Miami game, basketball often comes down to “is your best player better than my best player?” Against Miami, the answer, unfortunately, was no. For Clemson to advance in the tournament, the answer has to be yes.

Guards?

On offense, one of Clemson’s three guards with the ability to get into the lane and either get fouled or kick out to an open shooter, has to do it. Much like Simms, when the guards decide to stand around the perimeter and hoist up three-pointers, it’s never a good sign. Honestly, I hope Clemson comes out cold from deep, misses their first 2 or 3 perimeter shots, and decides to play basketball.

Against Miami, Honor, Trapp, and Dawes attempted a combined 2 free throws, and those came off an under their own basket turnover by Miami late in the game. Accumulating fouls in college basketball serves two important functions. First and foremost, you get to stand unguarded from 15 feet and shoot the ball at the rim. Scoring points with the clock stopped is the obvious advantage of getting to the free throw line. The undervalued aspect of attacking on offense and drawing fouls is the damage it does to the other team’s offense.

The only way Clemson was going to slow down Miami’s Ian Wong was going at him on the offensive end of the court, getting him in foul trouble, and putting him on the bench. You don’t do that hoisting up threes and turning the ball over. You have to force the other team to foul you by driving the ball and throwing it into the paint. The more stagnant Clemson is on offense, the less stress they put on a defense and fewer fouls the accumulate.

On defense, Clemson has to do a better job of guarding their own guys. I’ve said it a few thousand times this year, but Clemson’s help side defense, while usually good, over reacts to dribble drives. If the opponent sticks a shooter in the corner and drives the ball from the top of the key, that shooter is wide open 95% of the time (seemingly) because the Clemson defense is always going to collapse into the lane and then try and close out on shooters. The best way to stop that from happening is for the guards to dig in and prevent the dribble drive in the first place. When the other team is getting the ball into the paint on every possession because Clemson’s guards can’t contain the dribble, Clemson is going to lose.

Coach Brownell

This has been one of Coach Brownell’s best coaching jobs in his Clemson tenure. I know the majority of us thought that the Tigers were cooked after the series of blowout losses after the first COVID pause, but Brad managed to right the ship and get Clemson comfortably into the NCAA tournament.

So....good job Coach!

Now we’re into single elimination basketball, and I hope to see Coach Brownell change up his usual strategy to reflect the difference between regular season and tournament basketball.

Player Rotation

The first thing that needs to change is the rotation. Against the Hurricane’s Brownell coached like he was trying to get guys minutes in mid-January. He kept Miami in the first half by running out 11 guys in the first 20 minutes. Whenever the Tigers looked like they were putting together a run, Brad would send a couple key guys to the bench and the Hurricanes would claw back into the game. Tournament basketball is a little like dealing with zombies. When you’ve got a team down, you’ve got to go for the double tap, because if you don’t put them away early, they’ll come back to bite you late.

I want to see this rotation Friday night.

Starters

C - Simms

PF - Tyson

SF - Hemenway

SG - Trapp

PG - Honor

Bench

G - Dawes

C/PF - Baehre

Wing - Newman or Hunter (not both)

That’s a solid 8 man rotation, and honestly, I wouldn’t mind if Brad kept Newman/Hunter on the bench and went with a 7 man rotation.

Of course, this changes if players get into foul trouble, and everyone needs to be ready to play, but I’m talking about planned substitution patterns. Looking back on Clemson’s Sweet 16 run in 2018 gives me hope. Coach Brownell basically went with an 8 man rotation with Simms being the only bench player to receive substantial minutes. I like our young bench guys, but they’ll have their tournament opportunities further down the road. You have to live and die with your key players in March.

Ruthless Aggression

Outside of the rotation, I want to see Coach Brownell show a little ruthless aggression. Clemson is the underdog, and if they’re going to go down, I want them to go down in a blaze of glory. That means finding the opponents weak point and throwing everything he has at it.

Going back to the Miami game, the Hurricane’s weakness was at point guard, but Coach Brownell waited until the dying minutes of the game to turn up the full court pressure and exploit that weakness. Isaiah Wong should have spent the entire game fighting to get the ball up the court. Clemson needed to grind him down because he was their only legit ball handler. Instead, he was allowed to casually walk the ball up the court for most of the game and save his legs, and dictate the pace of the game.

I’d love to see Clemson try and speed turnover-prone Rutgers up early on Friday, instead of trying to speed them up late because of desperation. I’m not suggesting Nolan Richardson’s “40 minutes of hell” but occasionally turning up the pressure and making Rutgers play at a faster pace then they are accustomed could pay huge dividends.

Overall

Clemson has the ability to win games (yes, games) in this tournament. They’ve shown throughout the year, that when they bring their A-game, they can knock off any team. They’ve knocked off 2-seed Alabama, 4-seed Purdue, 4-seed Florida State, 8-seed North Carolina, 9-seed Georgia Tech, 10-seed Maryland, and 11-seed Syracuse this season. When they put everything together, they’re a devastatingly good defensive team with enough scoring to get the job done.

The problem with this team is they also have the ability to lose in the first round (or to Miami), because sometimes, for reasons I have yet to figure out, they occasionally don’t show up to play. If they don’t show up with their A-game against Rutgers, it will be a short homecoming trip for Coach Brownell and Alex Hemenway. If they do show up to play, I could see this team getting out of their initial four team pod, and once that happens, all-bets are off.

I’ll give you a Rutgers preview, but this one, in my humble opinion, is the most important. If Clemson can knock out bizarro Clemson before they get to Indianapolis, they will have already vanquished the team that has given them the most trouble this season.

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