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Basketball Preview: North Carolina at Clemson

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson 11-2 (1-1) at North Carolina 10-3 (2-0)

When: Saturday, 1/6, Noon
Location: Littlejohn Coliseum - Clemson, SC
TV: ESPN2

Clemson heads home after suffering an ACC loss at Miami, where the Hurricanes got red hot and looked like they have not taken any step back from last year’s Final Four run. Waiting for the Tigers is the ultimate blue blood of ACC basketball, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Like Clemson, the Tar Heels fell just short of the NCAA tournament last season finishing with 20-wins and rejecting an NIT invitation (something that no longer seems ridiculous after Clemson’s ridiculous loss to Morehead St.) They lost Caleb Love from that team, but return Armando Bacot, RJ Davis, and they’ve added Cormac Ryan — a fifth year senior who transferred from Notre Dame.

Also like Clemson, UNC challenged themselves with six non-conference games against top 100 teams. They came out with victories against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. The two teams appear improved from last season when the Heels ran the Tigers out of the Dean Dome with a 20-point loss. Now, they each find themselves inside KenPom’s top 25 with UNC ranked 11th and Clemson 23rd.

Armando Bacot may be the biggest name on Carolina’s roster and rightfully so as he leads the ACC in rebounding with 10.8 per game. Clemson’s Ian Schieffelin is behind him in second place with 9.8. Bacot also provides scoring and rim defense averaging 14.9 points and 1.9 blocks per game. He will provide a stiff challenge for Hall and Schieffelin in the paint.

As always, North Carolina has a talented guard who can score inside and outside the 3-point arc, RJ Davis. He is the ACC’s leading scorer at 21.1 points per game (yes, they have the league’s leading rebounder and the leading scorer.). He has an efficient .396 3P%, but also can attack from inside where he is likewise efficient. He is a focal point of the offense and leads the Heels in 3-points shots made and is only behind Bacot in 2-point shots made.

Beyond those two, SF/wing Cormac Ryan is an example of the rich getting richer in the transfer portal. Taken from Notre Dame, he is an savvy veteran who can knock down clutch shots in the biggest moments. He has struggled with his 3-point shot this year, but was one of the best players on Notre Dame.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 16 Div I Men’s Championship - First Four - Notre Dame v Rutgers Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Harrison Ingram is a junior post-player who gives UNC a big man duo that rival’s Clemson’s Hall-Schieffelin combo. All four UNC starters mentioned are veterans. The lone underclassman they start is Elliot Cadeau at point guard. He averages 7.0 points, 3.5 assists, and doesn’t provide much threat from the 3-point arc (4 3-pointers made). This is a matchup Clemson must win. Chase Hunter averaged 13.8 points last season, and is down 2.4 points from that. After a 5-game slump, he has scored 16 points in each of the last two games. A big game from Chase Hunter would go a long way in securing a victory.

Earning this victory is paramount. Clemson holds a rock solid 11-2 record, but they’ve lost their last two games against high-major competition (Memphis and Miami) with two “buy games” (Queens and Radford) sandwiched in-between. As football season ends, casual fans tuning in cannot be shown the same ole Clemson basketball that has tormented them for years.

While Clemson fans tend to be endlessly positive towards the football program, history has taught them to guard their hearts whenever the basketball program shows signs of a potential downturn. Losing three-straight to high-major teams would definitely show that and be a big reason for concern.

Conversely, if Clemson can host KenPom’s second ranked team in the ACC (Duke is first at #9 and Clemson is third at #23), they will have seen with their own eyes how this year’s Clemson basketball team is different. It would further prove that this team’s goal of not just making the NCAA playoff but advancing is feasible.

Clemson has great wins against Alabama, TCU, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, and Boise State, but this would be their best. KenPom slightly favors the Tigers giving them a 52% chance to win this game. Hopefully reserve wing Jack Clark can return and give the Tigers additional depth, but even without him this should be a close competitive game. Home court advantage matters way more than it seems like it should, and UNC has only played one true road game (a win at Pittsburgh). Clemson fans will turn out and help push the Tigers over the finish line in what should be a great ACC basketball battle. I like KenPom’s score prediction so I’ll share it here:

Clemson: 80
North Carolina: 79