South Carolina tips off against the Clemson Tigers in 24 hours, and the Gamecocks are likely to be favored in the match-up to vanquish the Tigers for the first time in Frank Martin's tenure. Clemson's had an up-and-down year, and has to make the trip to Columbia, so the odds seem in favor of the Gamecocks.
How are the Tigers feeling about the match-up? We sat down with Ryan Kantor of Shakin' the Southland to get his perspective on the upcoming contest. Our questions are in bold italics; Kantor responds in normal typeface.
Our responses to his questions can be found here.
1) Clemson's pretty good! This team beat LSU, Auburn, and Arkansas so far this season. What did the Tigers do well in those games that led them to wins?
In Clemson's last two games, the Tigers added two wins against SEC foes: Arkansas and Auburn. In those wins, Rod Hall was aggressive and made the big plays down the stretch. He totaled 39 points across the two games. Add in the LSU win, and Hall has 64 points against three SEC opponents compared to 50 points in six games against non-SEC opponents. Without KJ McDaniels, Clemson needs an undisputed leader and go-to guy. They've succeeded when Hall has filled the void.
Landry Nnoko, our junior center, has failed to emerge as a primary offense threat or someone the offense can consistently run through. Due to our lack of outside shooting, teams are able to collapse into the paint to deny entry passes, thus making playing inside-out basketball very difficult. Last week against Auburn, Nnoko was outplayed by 6'7" Cinmeon Bowers and fouled out. Nnoko is a great secondary player, but due to the team makeup and his own limitations, he has not been able to make the step to become a go-to guy. This makes Rod Hall's continued great play all the more important.
2) Clemson's pretty bad! They've lost to Rutgers, Winthrop, and Gardner-Webb. How did the team that's 3-0 against the SEC lose those games?
Turnover differential has been a problem. Across the losses to Rutgers and Winthrop, Clemson committed 19 more turnovers than they forced. Even when their defense is in top form, they aren't a defense that forces a ton of turnovers. Instead they excel in forcing teams into a low eFG%. They're currently 64th in the nation in opponents eFG%.
Because they limit possessions and don't generate easy buckets off turnovers, they can't afford to waste possessions and give up points off turnovers. Against Winthrop, their 16 turnovers meant 22% of their possessions ended in TOs. If that gets coupled with a good shooting night from an opponent, such as Gardner Webb hitting 11 threes then they're in trouble.
3) This is the first away game for the Tigers this season. Any worries that Clemson will struggle with a hostile road environment?
KenPom stats don't hold a lot of weight until you get into conference play and have enough data to build on, but it's still telling that KenPom does not favor Clemson in a single road game this season. That doesn't mean they're projecting them to go 0-10, but it isn't good.
That said, Clemson won four ACC road games last year, so I'm not worried about crowd noise (especially with the student on Christmas break) like I would be at Cameron Indoor, but winning on the road is challenging, and this appears to be an improved South Carolina basketball team.
4) The biggest change between last year and this year seems to be on the defensive end. Is that all just the loss of KJ McDaniels, or what's going on?
Losing KJ is certainly a big part of it. While the Tigers have a lot of good on-ball defenders, what I think some don't realize about McDaniels is that most of his blocks came in help defense. His weakside help defense was incredible, and it surely had an impact on the psyche of our opponents. Clemson's BLK% has dipped from 16.1% (of opponents 2P shots) to 13.0%, but it is still well above the national average. It's largely the help defense that's taken a step back. There have been more freebie baskets this season.
Another issue that has concerned me is that Clemson is surrendering more turnovers than they're forcing, allowing their opponents to get out and run. Our defense is best when they can set-up and force opponents to burn through the shot clock, controlling the tempo in the process.
Overall, opponents are hitting three-point shots 3.2 percentage points more often, which may partially be luck, but it looks like Clemson defenders are not getting out to contest well enough. They're losing the turnover battle and the help defense has taken a step back. They've played good defense in stretches, so there is reason to believe they can get close to last year's level, but they haven't been consistent yet.
5) Is this our last chance to see Brad Brownlee? If yes, do you think that's reasonable?
AD Dan Radakovich gave him an extremely generous buy-out in the contract extension they agreed upon after last season. At five million dollars, he's not going anywhere soon.
6) Building on question 5, what is the ceiling for Clemson? Can it be a perennial NCAA team? Or is it - like Penn St. and Auburn - destined to struggle as a basketball program trying to make it at a football school located in a small town?
With the new basketball coliseum coming and the ACC beefed up with Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, Clemson will have the facilities and the conference affiliation to be successful. Just like some of the lesser football programs in the SEC who shall remain unnamed recruit on their conference affiliation [ed note: hey, play nice!], Clemson basketball can do the same. Even as average as we've been so far this season, the Tigers and Heels will open ACC play with a prime time ESPN game.
While I don't think it is realistic to expect Clemson to routinely compete with UNC, Duke, or Louisville, there's no reason they can't look like Virginia who has an all-time losing ACC record and only two ACC tournament championships ('74 and '14), but is on top of the conference right now.
Clemson made six NCAA tournament appearance from '87-'98. If Clemson is making the NCAA 3-5 times and the NIT 3-5 times per decade, most Clemson fans will be content.
7) What's your prediction for the game on Friday night?
KenPom seems very confident that the Cocks will end Clemson's three game SEC win streak and two game SC win streak. He gives Clemson only a 17% chance to win, but Clemson is such a hard team to predict that I have a hard time being that confident in any outcome. Clemson beat at least one SEC team that is better than South Carolina while the Cocks lost to Akron, so you have to believe there's a chance.
That said, Clemson also lost to three ridiculous teams and South Carolina beat Oklahoma State so as much as I want to chant "Just Like Football," logic and objectivity dictates that I pick South Carolina. If the Cocks do win, it'll likely be because Clemson wasted possessions and lost the turnover margin, again.