I was supposed to do a preview article for this game and missed it, so I apologize on that front. However, I’m here to recap last night’s close loss to Duke. I really felt a victory was totally out of the question coming in and instead hoped to see a good competitive effort and improvement from the team. That goal was certainly met and the ascension of Chase Hunter has changed the prospects of this team going forward in my opinion. I know there is a contingent of folks who have written this team and Brad Brownell off, and I can understand those opinions. However, as a Clemson fan and alumnus, I always try to hope for the best and as long as Brad is the coach at Clemson, I have to hope he can make it work and be successful. I’ve certainly been critical of him and the program at points during my time writing here and will continue to point to things when I see them.
The Tigers came into Cameron Indoor where the program has a grand total of 4 wins in its history. The last of those came with the “Slab Five” in Rick Barnes’ first year, a loss so devastating to Duke that Coach K threw out his back (reportedly) and stepped away from the team as they sank. This Duke team is the most talented, by a pretty decent margin, in the ACC. They sport a top 3 pick in Paolo Banchero and a true rim protecting big in Mark Williams, a likely first rounder himself. They have their usual assortment of McDonald’s All American recruits on the roster. Clemson has, at this time, one fringe NBA/NBADL guy in P.J. Hall. However, despite this discrepancy, the Tigers went toe to toe for the full game despite shooting a total of 1 free throw. The failing at the end came down to their guys making some tough shots and Clemson’s guys just not making theirs vs. inept execution or some of the other things we have seen doom the Tigers down the stretch of games. Duke was forced to execute and they did.
Banchero finished with 19 points to lead Duke and the Devils hit 10-20 from three and outscored the Tigers by 11 from the FT line. This offset a very strong 11-26 3 point shooting effort from Clemson. Ironically the Tigers lone free throw was a miss by the normally automatic Alex Hemenway.
Chase Hunter has changed this team and really gives it a chance to be a problem for people in the next half of the ACC schedule. Hall is an emerging star, but he needs steady guard play from a guy who can punish ball pressure and attack if need be. Hunter is that guy on this roster. He allows Dawes and Honor to play more off the ball and play to their strengths of catch/shoot vs. having to run the offense. Hunter can also rebound and guard at a higher level thanks to his superior size to those two. Hunter’s line from last night: 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists to just 1 turnover. Very good. The Tigers played through Hall the majority of the night, which makes sense, and he had 21 attempts. Unfortunately, he had to deal with Mark Williams’ presence (3 blocks, numerous alterations, some contact not called) and only made 6, including 2-7 on 3 pointers when he tried stepping out to stretch out the defense. It still was the way to go and probably should have put the Duke front line in foul trouble a lot more than it did.
Any long time Clemson basketball fan knows that playing at UNC or at Duke usually means you better be 10 points better than them that night to account for how the game will be officiated. Clemson is rarely 10 points better than either and therefore you see the history of futility at both places. To be honest, I’m a little shocked that Brownell doesn’t get a little more positive stuff from the officials considering how rarely he gets technical fouls or behaves aggressively towards them.
This loss is only as good as the Tigers can build from it. Things remain tough with a hot FSU team up next, but if the Tigers are going to begin to turn this season around and work towards the top 8 of the league, the wins have to start coming in sets. I’m encouraged that it is possible thanks to Chase Hunter’s play and the team’s commitment to boxing out and defensive rebounding we saw last night. That has to be the norm going forward against bigger, more athletic front lines like Duke and FSU. You hope that P.J. Hall will begin to garner the respect a top player deserves from the officials in the league.
KenPom currently has the Tigers going 8-3 down the stretch with the 11 games left. I would be happy with that if it can hold true. That would put the Tigers at 11-9 in the ACC, firmly in the top 8, and provide an outside shot at an NCAA bid. The Tigers currently sit at 59 in the top 100, not a terrible spot considering the record but anything outside the top 35 would be bubble at best. Clemson was at 42 last year when it just got in as a 10 seed, but that team had much better out of conference wins than this one has had.
Hall and Hunter and Dawes provide a trio this team can build on. Obviously seniors Hunter Tyson, Naz Bohannon, and David Collins are big contributors who will leave some voids, but if you have three guys who can really go, you can make an NCAA and win a game or two. This team could really, really use a rim protector to help defensively but the offense is finally at a level I’d like to see.