The Syracuse Orange will travel to Clemson for its last ACC regular season game with the opportunity to secure a fourth a quadrant one win. We caught up with Ryan Kantor over at Shakin The Southland to preview the matchup.
TNIAAM: How would you recap Clemson’s basketball season thus far?
Until late Wednesday night, it was nothing but heartbreak and frustration for a team that we said in our season preview was “a top 25 team” that “absolutely should be a NCAA tournament team.” To our surprise, they were mediocre in non-conference play and lost to Nebraska and Creighton. Their best non-conference wins were Lipscomb and South Carolina. ACC play began and their three-point defense started to improve. Guards finally started making some outside shots (but still not quite as many as we expected). Despite that, they got buried at 1-4 as they played an extremely front loaded ACC schedule.
As the schedule eased up, they picked up wins against the bottom tier of the conference, but suffered several gut-wrenching close losses. Four of their last five losses have come by 1 or 2 points.
On Wednesday at Notre Dame, it looked like Clemson’s post-season hopes would go up in flames. They surrendered the lead late in the game, but rallied making a jump shot and then three straight free throws. When their fourth free throw attempt clanked out and then a foolish foul put Notre Dame at the FT line with a chance to tie it, the “here we go again” feeling had already set in. Shockingly,
Clemson got lucky and he missed the game-tying FT. The Tigers hung on for dear life. They still have a shot at the tournament!
TNIAAM: Will this team make the NCAA Tournament?
With the win over Notre Dame, they’re now 8-9 in the ACC. If they can beat Syracuse, the inevitable #8 vs. #9 ACC tournament game vs. NCSU will very likely be for the ACC’s last NCAA tournament spot. I believe they’d beat NCSU in that situation, so if they beat Syracuse, then yes, they’ll make the tournament.
TNIAAM: What’s the hope for basketball beyond this year?
That’s where things get less optimistic. Clemson will lose four senior starters after this season. While there are three freshmen currently contributing off the bench, their production has been limited. The incoming class has three guards including one four-star, but freshmen under Coach Brownell have generally taken a while to make an impact. UNC-Asheville transfer Jonathan Baehre will become eligible and should be the biggest addition. If the Tigers can make the tournament this season, it’ll be a great two year run, but that can’t be our ceiling and it can’t be another six years before our next run. Now is the time to build on our success! We didn’t win the Zion recruitment, but we have to start making strides in recruiting and capitalize on our on-court success while we can.
TNIAAM: What was the perspective from the Clemson side in the first meeting against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome?
The last time these teams faced off, I was flying back from California after a 41-14 dismantling of the second best college football program in America. The hearts and minds of the Clemson fan base were still in Santa Clara, soaking in the glory. Our early season ACC schedule was at Duke, at Syracuse, vs. UVA. We had hoped to salvage one, but knew 0-3 was possible and the easier late season schedule would help compensate. The Tiger offense was struggling at the time. They seem to have improved and Syracuse provides a great test to determine if it has been genuine progress or the flow of the schedule.
TNIAAM: Can Elijah Thomas get going this time around?
Eli Thomas was a huge part of Clemson’s win over Notre Dame. It comes in spurts, but he looks like a dominant NBA-talent at times. He has to avoid foul trouble (he fouled out in our first matchup), but if he does he can make a huge impact. He averages 13.7 ppgand 2.2 bpg in just 25.5 minutes per game. Across 40 minutes that’s 20.7 points. Clemson’s offense is much better with him on the court. One big reason is his passing. He and PF Aamir Simms are both capable of getting in the high-post and challenging the 2-3 zone. He can certainly do it. It’s largely a matter of avoiding foul trouble.
TNIAAM: Who wins, what’s the final score and why?
I love the Syracuse zone. It’s so fun to watch teams work against it. When done right, an offense breaking the zone relies on unselfish passing and movement without the ball. When a team is stifled by the zone, you see a lot of silly out-of-rhythm three-pointers. In Clemson’s first matchup with the Boehim zone, they shot 5-20 from three. That’s way more three-pointers than this 33.2% shooting team needs to be taking. If they heave up that many three-pointers again, I would expect a similar result to their 61-53 loss.
If Eli Thomas can stay out of foul trouble or Aamir Simms can step up and make some plays in the high-post, it’ll go a long way. Getting uncharacteristically hot from three can also play a huge role against this defense. Unfortunately, none of those are things I’m willing to bet on. I think the Tigers score more than 53, but I’m not nearly as optimistic as KenPom’s 66% win probability. I think it comes down to the final few possessions. We’ll see if this team has the grit to beat a very good opponent in a de facto tournament elimination game.
Thanks, Ryan for participating here.
Be sure to head over the STS for our Q&A to boot.