When: Saturday 2:00 pm
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum
TV: RSN / ACCNX
The 2021-2022 Clemson Tigers have had a pretty rough season, but they’ve rallied to win three straight games for the first time since December and hope to make it four before heading to the ACC Tournament. Unfortunately, the final opponent is Virginia Tech who has been a thorn in the program’s side since Buzz Williams got that program turned around. Mike Young has continued this and is undefeated vs. Brad Brownell since taking the job in Blacksburg.
The Hokies were a trendy pick to challenge for the ACC title, but things were looking bleak back on January 26th when they were just 2-7 in ACC play and 10-10 overall. Since then, they have been the hottest team in the ACC and have won 9 out their last 10 and three in a row. This has put them in contention for the NCAA tournament. They simply cannot afford a “bad” loss to Clemson before the ACC tournament. On the flip side, the Tigers could really inject a little belief that they can make some noise in the ACC Tournament if they can pull this one off.
Hunter Tyson returned to action against GT and looked pretty good considering the layoff. He was much needed against GT because Al-Amir Dawes and Chase Hunter, who had been carrying the team as of late, had poor showings overall, particularly on offense. The transfers saved the day as David Collins poured in 19 points and Naz Bohannon took over down the stretch and made the game-winning score. Clemson will have to play significantly better than they played in the GT game to beat VT. Clemson needs an effort similar to the Wake Forest game.
The first thing that worries you about VT is their ability to shoot the three. They are the 5th ranked 3-point shooting team in the land right now at 39%. They rained them on Florida State to the tune of 18-25 back on Jan 29th which was the catalyst of this strong run they have been on ever since. I also feel Mike Young is up there with Mike Brey in terms of running some top shelf offensive stuff to get clean looks. Their spacing and movement is akin to what you see teams like Gonzaga feature. Hunter Cattoor continues to be what I wish Alex Hemenway could be and is once again over 40% from 3 on a whopping 170 attempts. Justyn Mutts is their Swiss Army knife who can also hurt you from 3 as well as attack the rim and post up. Keve Aluma may not be a front runner for ACC Player of the Year as he was a candidate for preseason, but he still is averaging 15.6 points per game.
Aluma and Mutts comprise the inside game for the Hokies more often than not, and everyone else is out there either setting or coming off double stagger screens, elevator screens, and pin screens to occupy the help defense and/or create open looks from 3. Clemson has relied a good bit on the 3 pointer as well and has taken 640 so far this season, but VT has taken 43 more attempts from distance!
My main concern in this game is that the Tigers will be too afraid to play zone against a team who can shoot it like VT can. We saw how GT had their way a good bit of the night with Clemson’s man-to-man until they did what losing teams do, which is get away from what was working and rely more on one-on-one basketball. When they were running their actions, they got to the rim over and over and over again as the Tigers either got exposed on switches or didn’t communicate correctly.
If VT has a weakness, it is lack of quality inside depth behind Aluma. UNC used their superior front court size to deal them their only loss since January. Unfortunately, unless P.J. Hall can return and play up to his usual level, the Tigers aren’t really built to exploit that. The other slight weakness might be Wofford transfer point guard Storm Murphy. While Murphy is a very skilled and smart player, he has at times struggled with the bigger, faster, stronger defenders he sees in the ACC. Nick Honor, Dawes, and Hunter all should look to put as much pressure on Murphy as possible and make it hard for him to see and operate, as well as get clean looks from 3.
If I’m Clemson, I’m going to make Aluma score 50 from the block vs. one on one coverage. I’m not doubling down and I’m not helping off any of these shooters. Let them throw it in and hope the Tiger frontcourt defenders can offer enough resistance to hold them to one shot inside. This would be very different than how Clemson usually plays its man defense where they frequently double post ups and over help on any action in the paint. If Aluma kills us by himself, tip your hat and move on. However, it does no good to hold Aluma to 10 if Mutts, Cattoor, Murphy, and/or Nahiem Alleyne all get going and bomb 10+ three-point makes.
Clemson wins if: P.J. Hall returns and does his best Paolo Banchero impression, subsequently putting Aluma and other front court Hokies in foul trouble. OR, Clemson’s guard play returns to Wake/BC levels and VT makes 8 or less 3 pointers. I’m not banking on Hall playing again until the tournament, so the pressure shifts to the guards who have to produce offensively as well as try to keep VT’s prolific shooters somewhat contained.
I’ve been on record many times saying I’m a Mike Young fan and he was my choice to be Clemson’s next coach even back when Purnell left. My undergraduate degree is from Wofford and so I know and followed Young closely during his career there. While he has not yet experienced major tournament success, I feel it is only a matter of time before he has a few teams make some deeper runs in March. I hope Clemson can win this game because I know what level they will need to play at in order to do so, but I can’t predict it based on recent history of the two programs and accounting for how well VT is playing presently. The Tigers should be lauded for putting together a win streak without their best player because they had every excuse for flaming out completely down the stretch. I think they will keep this close for most of the game but I take VT to win.