CLEMSON vs NC State (ACC Tournament)
Tip: 12:00 in Charlotte
All-Time Series: NC State leads 103-53
It seems like a trick of fate that the Tigers would get a chance at revenge against the Wolfpack in their first game in Charlotte for the ACC Tournament. In the only meeting between the two teams this season at the end of January, the Tigers had the game all but won in Raleigh with a Saturday afternoon crowd. The Tigers led by 5 with 34 seconds left and the ball. All they had to do was make their free throws, and they would have a big ACC road win against the No.21 team. Instead, the Tigers piled miss upon miss. It started with Clyde Trapp and Shelton Mitchell each missing one of two at the line, but even the Tigers' leading scorer, Marcquise Reed, who was the top free throw shooter in the ACC at 84%, missed his final four free throws. Even then, the Tigers had a one-point lead with 7 seconds left, but Braxton Beverly made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to rip the Tigers' hearts out and win 69-67. The Tigers didn't make a single 3-pointer in that game--the only time this season--and still should have won the game. I wrote in my preview of that game that Marcquise Reed would have to score 20 points for the Tigers to pull the upset, and that turned out to be as prophetic as could be because he was stuck on 19 points when he missed four straight game-clinching free throws. I also wrote that the Tigers needed to look out for Beverly shooting the 3's, and he made one that will stick with the Tigers for a long time. No one would have ever predicted the Tigers would lose the way they did, though, with the clutch free throw shooter Reed missing 4 in a row with the game on the line. That collapse began a 4-game series of heartbreaking losses for the Tigers this season. 3 of them were on the road and 3 were against ranked teams, most recently the 2-point loss to now No.3 UNC. In all 4 of those losses, the Tigers either led with one second left or had the ball with a chance to win.
Despite the set backs, the Tigers have persevered and remarkably find themselves with a 9-9 ACC record entering the tournament and controlling their own NCAA Tournament destiny. With the 67-55 win over Syracuse to finish the regular season .500 in the toughest conference in the nation, ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has the Tigers in his NCAA field as a 12 seed. However, Clemson and NC State are both in his last 4 teams in the field, so in his eyes, this rematch in Charlotte represents a play-in game for the winner and an elimination game for the loser. In my opinion, the Tigers could get an NCAA bid win or lose on Wednesday, but if they lose they will need everything to fall just right in terms of the automatic qualifiers. If there are too many unlikely winners of the smaller conference tournaments, that could steal a spot from the Tigers and knock them into a No.1 seed in the NIT. If the Tigers win, on the other hand, it's simple: they are in. If the Tigers do make the NCAA Tournament, it will be their first return trip in the era of Brad Brownell, the second-winningest coach all-time at Clemson.
But first things first....
NC STATE SYNOPSIS
The Pack comes into the ACC Tourney at 21-10 overall and 9-9 in the ACC, same as the Tigers. They broke a 2-game losing streak that included a 2-point home loss to Georgia Tech by winning at BC 73-47 on Saturday. That result was somewhat surprising, given that they went to overtime with BC in Raleigh just a few weeks ago. The best win of the season for Head Coach Kevin Keatts in his second year was 78-71 over No.7 Auburn back in December. State also had a 15-point win over Syracuse a month ago. Kevin Keatts and Brad Brownell have both been Head Coach at UNC Wilmington--that was Keatts's previous stop before NC State. Next to Clemson, NC State was the biggest surprise of the ACC last season.
When the two teams met earlier this season, point guard Markell Johnson had missed the previous 3 games due to injury, and 2 of them were losses. He made his return against the Tigers and had a huge impact on the game. He was 3-6 from beyond the arc, scoring 16 points in 23 minutes, and 9 of them came in the final 4 minutes. Johnson scored just 6 in their blowout win at BC on Saturday, but he scored 17 in the previous game 14 in the game before that and 25 a couple weeks ago against Wake. He averages 11.5 points and 4.6 assists per game and is an excellent 3-point shooter at 40.8%.
The hallmark of the Pack's style of play is their fast pace. They average 81 points per game, which is #5 in the Power Five. The fact that the Tigers held the Pack to 66 points on their own court before that last-second shot is impressive--especially since the Tigers weren't playing as well defensively then as they are now.
The Tigers will see plenty of full-court press from the Pack. They like to trap in the corners, so Mitchell, Reed and Trapp will need to be sharp on Wednesday. The Tigers have done a good job breaking the press this season against teams like FSU. However, State is #1 in the ACC at forcing turnovers and #2 in turnover margin at 3.23 per game. The Tigers turned the ball over 15 times in the first meeting up in Raleigh, which is a few more than their average, but they were even with the Pack in turnover margin. State is a great rebounding team--they really crash the glass. The Pack are first in the ACC in offensive rebounds per game, third in total rebounds and fifth in rebound margin. The Tigers actually out-rebounded the Pack by 7 in the first meeting, though, and if they can pull that off again, I like their chances to win on Wednesday. State is proficient on the perimeter both offensively and defensively. They rank 4th in the ACC in both 3-point offense (36.1%) and 3-point defense (29.4%), so that could be the biggest advantage they have over the Tigers, who have struggled all season in both categories--especially the latter, where they rank dead last in the ACC at 35%.
State's wings--Bryce, Dorn and Daniels--really attack the basket off the dribble and are great finishers. The Tigers' opponents always seem to have their best shooting games against them, so as I wrote back in January, look out for Beverly spotting up for 3's. If he gets going, it could be a long day for the Tigers. State doesn't have a ton of size in the paint, but sophomore D.J. Funderburk is starting to come into his own and will be a good matchup for Eli Thomas. He scored a season-high 18 points 10 days ago against FSU.
The morale and confidence of the Tigers has to be as high as it's been in weeks after closing out the season with an impressive 12-point win over a good Syracuse team on Senior Day. All of the seniors had a good game after looking a little tight in the first half. Reed scored just 4 points in the first half but finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 assists. He was also 8-8 at the free throw line, and if anyone on the team is itching for a shot at revenge against the Wolfpack, it's the Tigers' leading scorer. As well as he played on Saturday, Reed was just 2-7 from beyond the arc. That has been a source of inconsistency for him this season, and if he can shoot 40% or better on Wednesday, the Tigers will have an excellent shot at advancing.
Eli Thomas had an outstanding game in the first meeting with the Pack, scoring 18 points on 8-11 from the field, but he played just 26 minutes due to foul trouble. That has been the hobgoblin for Eli throughout his career, and he will need to be as conscientious of his fouls as ever on Wednesday if the Tigers are going to win. The Tigers' odds of winning go up substantially when Eli plays 30 or more minutes. He is #14 nationally in field goal percentage at 62% from the field, 2nd in the ACC and 4th in the Power Five.
David Skara is the unsung player that glues this team together. The team's best defender missed the UNC game with an elbow injury, and the Tigers would have surely won the game if he had played. UNC made 13 three-pointers in the game--second-most for them all season--and the Tigers still had the ball with a chance to win. Since returning to the lineup, the Tigers have won 2 in a row. Skara told me going into the Syracuse game that his elbow felt fine, and he played a very good game. He scored just 2 points in the first meeting in Raleigh, and I look to him to be more of a factor offensively in this one.
The Tigers could also use some offense from Aamir Simms. He is a solid rebounder and defender but has been inconsistent on the offensive end. He had a dreadful game at Notre Dame, fouling out with 3 points, going 1-7 from the field. He was better in the Syracuse win, scoring 8 points, but he was just 1-4 from beyond the arc. If Simms can make a couple 3's and score 10 points or more, the Tigers will almost always win.
It will be interesting to see whether the crowd favors one team or the other in this game. Charlotte is obviously within driving distance of both fan bases, but it's a noon game, so which fan base is more willing to skip work for a second-round ACC Tournament game? State is more of a basketball school while Clemson is a football school, so perhaps that gives us our answer. Time will tell, but since the Tigers went into Raleigh on a Saturday afternoon and should have beaten the Pack, I like their chances on Wednesday. The Tigers are playing much better than they were then--especially on the defensive end. I think they will come into this game with enormous chips on their shoulders seeking revenge, and they will get it. Tigers survive and advance against the Pack and lock up a return trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, Brownell's first year at Clemson. Their reward will be a 12:30 Thursday game against No.1 seed Virginia, which rolled over the Tigers in Littlejohn back in mid-January and will almost certainly be a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.