Mike Scott clinched the first Clemson game at the line.
After foul trouble and UNC’s 19 offensive rebounds doomed UVa to a 70-52 loss at the Dean Dome, the Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4 ACC) head to Littlejohn Coliseum on Tuesday night for their second game of the season against Clemson (12-12, 4-6 ACC). Can the Cavs pick up a much needed win to buoy their hopes of securing an NCAA Tournament bid, or will the Tanner Smith and the Tigers sink the Hoos?
1. First, let’s start with the loss to UNC on Saturday. I optimistically picked the Hoos to win 63-60, mainly based upon the Heels’ lack of depth. My thought was that the team could at least stay close early and eventually wear the Heels down with methodical offense and defense. The Hoos accomplished this first goal, leading by as many as 7 points in the first half and holding a 1-point lead as late as 4+ minutes into the second half. Impressively, the Cavaliers Hoos kept pace with the Heels despite Mike Scott being consigned to the bench for approximately the last 9 minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul.
Conversely, the second goal went unfulfilled. The way I saw it, the game turned at the 14:50 mark of the second half. With about 3 minutes gone after halftime, Mike picked up his third foul, and then Darion Atkins moved to within one foul of ejection a little more than a minute later. With 14:50 left, the Hoos were just a nose behind the Heels (42-41) when Akil Mitchell picked up his third foul too. From this point forward, it seemed like UVa’s posts made a conscious decision to play soft(er) on both sides of the ball, knowing that there was no margin for error. The first three possessions after the third foul on Mitchell were a harbinger of things to come. On the first, Reggie Bullock missed a jumper, but Justin Watts tipped it in. On the second, the Heels missed a pair of 3’s, but a pair of offensive rebounds led to a third chance dunk by John Henson. Then, after a James McAdoo miss on the third possession, the Heels corralled another pair of offensive boards on their fourth possession before Harrison Barnes scored on a layup. Seven minutes and change after Mitchell’s third foul, the Tar Heels had cushioned their lead to 12 (56-44) following Mitchell’s fourth foul and a Henson free throw.
I mention this foul situation not to challenge the officiating or claim that it was the reason for the loss. Instead, my point is that foul troubles clearly altered the way Virginia’s posts played and would have made it difficult for UVa to beat UNC Asheville let alone UNC. But here’s the thing: we’re unlikely to see a repeat on Tuesday. In the Hoos’ first game against Clemson, the only player with three or more fouls was Jontel Evans . Atkins had two fouls while Mitchell and Scott each had one. The Tigers only attempted 11 free throws. These numbers are not anomalies. Clemson only has attempted 427 free throws on the season while the Tar Heels have shot 645. If the Cavaliers lose on Tuesday, it shouldn’t be because foul problems tether the bigs to the bench or make them play passively.
3. In the first game against Clemson, the Tigers were themselves short handed, with No. 24 Milton Jennings being suspended for academic reasons. I discussed the 6’9″ Jennings in my prior Primer, and he hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the lineup in the Tigers’ last two games. In those games, Jennings has scored a total of 29 points on 11-19 shooting and pitched in 11 rebounds. Jennings is a long and athletic defender and will literally present a taller task for Mike Scott, who had 10 rebounds and 23 points on 8-11 shooting in the first game.
There are also three players I didn’t highlight in my prior Primer who could see some quality minutes against Virginia this time around:
C: No. 10 Catalin “Bobo” Baciu is a 7’2″, 255-pound senior from Romania. Baciu is averaging 4.4 points (on 60% shooting) and 2.3 rebounds per game in 10.6 minutes per game. Despite his size, Baciu, like many European big men, is a face-up post who gets most of his points off of midrange jumpers. That said, in the first game against UVa, he scored three early layups as the team paid him as much heed as I did in my Primer. After that, the posts did a good job of denying him the ball and doubling him when he got it. This latter strategy seems to be the best way to deal with Baciu who hasn’t registered a single assist the last two seasons.
PF: No. 22 Bernard Sullivan, a former Tony Bennett recruit, stands at 6’7″ and 225 pounds. Sullivan has been plagued by asthma most of this season, which has limited his ability to practice and play in games. On the season, he’s averaging 1.5 points (on 36.8% shooting) and 1.4 rebounds in 8 minutes per game. Sullivan is fast and athletic for his size and has the potential to be a force defensively and on the boards. But in large part because of his breathing problems, he’s not there yet. That said, he registered an ACC-high 15 minutes in the game against Wake and put up an ACC-high 7 points on 3-4 shooting against Virginia Tech. But Sullivan didn’t score against Virginia and only has 1 assist on the season, so doubling down on him should work as well.
SF: No. 32 K.J. McDaniels is a 6’6″, 190-pound freshman and maybe the most athletic player on this year’s Clemson squad. McDaniels is extremely raw and incredibly inconsistent at this point in his career, but he’s also very dangerous. In 8 minutes against UVa, he secured 3 offensive rebounds, got a tip-in bucket, and knocked down a jumper. In the next game against Virginia Tech, he had his best game of the season, tallying 14 points (on 7-11 shooting) and 5 rebounds. But with Jennings coming back for the next two games, McDaniels played only a total of 22 minutes and scored a combined 7 points against Maryland and Wake. The Hoos might not see much of McDaniels on Tuesday, but I think he’ll be a thorn in the ACC’s side for the next few years.
4. After Virginia stymied a Clemson comeback in a 4-point win (65-61), the Tigers lost another pair of games in similar fashion. First, they trailed Virginia Tech in Blacksburg by 14 with 5:30 left (64-50) before a furious comeback fell short in a 67-65 loss. Then, they were down by 13 at home against Maryland with 8:30 left (50-37) before falling just short in a 64-62 defeat. Finally, Clemson’s last game was a 78-58 road knockout of a punchless Wake Forest squad. These three close losses and the blowout win are consistent with Clemson’s M.O. this season. On KenPom, the Tigers are rated as the unluckiest of the 345 teams in Division 1 basketball. In other words, based upon their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, you would expect Clemson to have a significantly better record, but they’ve dropped almost all of their close games (1-8 in games decided by 4 points or less). Again, this is not an anomaly. Last year, the Tigers were the 329th unluckiest team in the country in Brownell’s first year after finishing No. 275 and No. 231 in this matrix in Oliver Purnell’s last two years.
Probably the biggest factor in this lack of “luck” this season is Clemson’s ineptitude at the free throw line. The Tigers shoot only 67.2% from the charity stripe, which puts them at No. 238 in the country. In the loss to the Hokies, K.J. McDaniels had 2 free throws to tie the game with 3 seconds left and missed both. With 44 seconds left against Maryland, Devin Booker missed a pair from the line with the Tigers down 2, and Andre Young then missed 2 of 3 freebies after being fouled on a 3-pointer with his team down 3 with 11 seconds left. Given these statistics, you have to like UVa’s chances in a close game, and the last two games against the Tigers give us no reason to expect anything else.
But if Clemson is the least lucky team in the country, then it is also the most dangerous. The reason is that the Tigers’ RPI doesn’t come close to matching their aptitude. The Tigers are a lowly No. 173 in RPI, but they are No. 85 in KenPom and No. 100 in TAPE. Thus, a loss to Clemson would be devastating to Virginia’s RPI when Clemson is qualitatively a top 100 team in the country or at least close to it.
5. Sabre Poster 504-C Brandon has the game as a 57.4-51.7 UVa win, with the Hoos having a 70% chance of winning. The Team Rankings simulation (available here) has it as a 59.2-53.5 Virginia win.
As I noted above, I don’t see any reason to expect anything other than a close game on Tuesday. The Hoos beat Clemson at home by 2 last year and by 4 this year. Besides a 7-point loss to Duke (73-66), Clemson hasn’t lost a home game this season by more than 3 points. With Jennings back, the Tigers are better at rebounding than the lineup that UVa beat on the boards 34-19, but they’re also more turnover-prone than the squad that coughed it up only 4 times in the January game. I see another contest that goes down to the wire, with the Hoos pulling it out by a score of 56-53.
Author’s Note: Many of the statistics and analysis in this article were gathered through watching the two teams, ESPN.com, 504-C Brandon’s TAPE site, Warren Nolan RPI site, Teamrankings.com, and KenPom.com.