CLEMSON vs Pitt
All-Time Series: Clemson leads 4-3
Two teams desperate for a win will square off in Littlehjohn tonight. Pitt is playing its fourth straight road game, having lost 3 straight and 4 of its last 5, and the Tigers have lost 5 of their last 6, coming off one of the most heartbreaking losses in recent memory after a Braxton Beverly buzzer-beater cost them a huge road win against a legitimate top-15 team. The Tigers had the game all but won but went 2-8 from the free throw line in the final minute, and with a one-point lead and 12 seconds left, Beverly hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Adding to the agony and the irony was the fact that Marcquise Reed, the Tigers' leading scorer and best free throw shooter in the ACC, missed four consecutive free throws in that final minute. He was 83% on the season and only needed to make 2 of 4 to seal the game. He also missed the front end of a one-and-one earlier in the game, which was very uncharacteristic of him. In my game preview, I wrote that Reed would have to score 20 points in order for the Tigers to pull the upset. That turned out to be a prophetic prediction, as Reed finished with 19 points, having missed those final four free throws.
The once proud Pittsburgh program has fallen on tough times in the last couple years. It was the worst team in the ACC last season, losing every single conference game. Longtime Duke assistant and former VCU and Oklahoma Head Coach Jeff Capel was brought in this season and has quickly turned the team around. Pitt is 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the ACC with a couple impressive home wins over FSU and Louisville.
The biggest difference in Pitt this season has been a couple of freshman guards, Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson. They wear numbers 1 and 2, which is fitting because the tandem is leading the team in scoring with 13.6 and 16.2 points per game, respectively. McGowens had a huge 30-point game in the win over Florida State. He is a native of nearby Piedmont, SC, so you know he has been looking forward to this homecoming! Johnson is shooting just under 40% from beyond the arc, so the Tigers will have to limit his open shots. Another freshman guard, Toney, is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.4 points per game and leads the team with 6 rebounds per game. Those guards love to drive to the basket and get to the free throw line. Pitt is second in the ACC in free throws made and first in attempts. Their starting back court, Johnson and McGowens are top 2 in the ACC in made free throws. Jared Wilson-Frame leads the team with 2.5 three-pointers per game and averages 37%. He is 6'5, so the Tigers will need to extend the defense on him.
Pitt does not have a dominant big man. 6'10 sophomore Terrell Brown and 6'9 junior Kene Chukwuka are the only players over 6'6 playing substantial minutes, and they combine for just 36 minutes per game. Brown is a prolific shot-blocker, averaging 3.5 blocks per game, which is third in the ACC, but the Tigers should have a distinct advantage in the front court with Thomas and Simms. They should force the ball into the low blocks early and often on offense.
Pitt turns the ball over a lot, averaging 14.5 turnovers per game, but they also force 16.2 turnovers per game. The Panthers like to press, but that shouldn't be a problem for the Tigers' experienced guards. This will be the third straight pressing team they have faced, and they handled it relatively well at FSU and NC State. Pitt's turnover margin is sixth-best in the ACC. If the Tigers can win the turnover battle on Tuesday night, it will go a long way toward securing the victory. Another thing to keep an eye on will be 3-point shooting for the Tigers. They are currently dead last in the ACC at 30.6%, and Pitt has the third-best 3-point defense in the ACC at 29.1%. That is #16 in the nation, and Pitt is also #16 in the nation in field goal percentage defense.
Morale of the team couldn't be good after that excruciating loss at NC State on Saturday. The Tigers were ranked as high as No.16 in the nation early in the season, and they have now fallen to 1-5 in the ACC and 11-8 overall. This two-game home stretch against Pitt and Wake, two lower-tier ACC teams, could not have come at a better time. I still believe this team has the ingredients to make the NCAA Tournament--the fact that they had a top-15 team in NC State all but beaten on the road supports that belief. To put things in perspective, it was a Saturday crowd and the first home game for the Wolfpack in two weeks. They beat #7 Auburn this season, and 2 of their 4 losses were without starting point guard Markell Johnson, who returned against the Tigers and had an enormous game with several key scores down the stretch. So this Clemson team is far better than its record. In fact, its arguably the best 11-8 team in several years. However, the margin for error is dwindling fast, and this is easily the toughest conference in the nation, so every game is going to be a battle--especially on the road.
Leading scorer Marcquise Reed has to show that he has a short memory and rebound with a big game against Pitt. As Reed goes this season, the Tigers will go, and he can't let his disappointing finish on Saturday fester. In addition to the missed free throws at NC State, he showed a complete lack of confidence in his shot, giving up multiple open 3-pointers that he would ordinarily shoot without hesitation. I don't know how he went cold so fast after scoring a career-high 30 points against Georgia Tech less than two weeks ago, but he needs to find confidence in his stroke again. Hopefully he will drive to the basket for some early baskets against Pitt, and then the 3-pointers will start falling. Even if they don't, he needs to shoot his way out of this funk because the Tigers need his 3-point shooting badly. They didn't make a single 3-pointer for the first time this season at NC State. Ironically, just one made 3-pointer would have given them the win.
Eli Thomas had an outstanding second half at NC State, finishing with 18 points. He needs to follow that up with another big game against Pitt, taking advantage of the size advantage I noted earlier. Aamir Simms should also have one of his better games in this one. One would also like to see Skara bounce back on Tuesday night. After scoring 9 points in the Georgia Tech win on 3-5 shooting, he scored just 3 points in the final minutes at FSU and 2 points at NC State.
It likely won't be a great crowd in Littlejohn because of the late tip on a Tuesday night and the rough stretch of losses, but I expect the Tigers to bounce back with a fairly comfortable win. Pitt has not a great team on the road, losing its last 2 road games by 11 and 14. Granted, those games were at Syracuse and Louisville, and the crowd they will face in Littlejohn won't compare to those venues, but the Tigers play well at home. However, if the NC State loss is still lingering in their heads, the Tigers could be in for a battle and will have to find a way to gut out a close win.