CLEMSON at Florida State
Tip: 7:01 on ESPNU
Who would have predicted last season that Clemson and Florida State would be two of the last three remaining ACC teams in the Sweet 16? The Tigers lost a Sweet 16 heartbreaker to Kansas with a home crowd in Omaha, and Kansas would go on to beat Duke in the next game to advance to the Final Four. FSU fell in the Elite 8 to Michigan, which made it all the way to the National Championship Game. Fast-forward 9 months, and the Tigers and Noles—two teams that were picked to finish 6th and 7th in the ACC, respectively—have both had rough starts in ACC play, with a combined record of 2-7. The Tigers were dealt a difficult early schedule by the ACC, opening 0-3 at #1 Duke, at Syracuse and (Coaches Poll #1) UVA at home. However, the Tigers rebounded with a 12-point home win over a good Georgia Tech team that had just won comfortably at Syracuse, which managed to upset #1 Duke in Cameron days before. The Seminoles, on the other hand, were ranked #11 in the nation last week but are just 1-4 in the ACC after losses at Pitt, which was winless in the ACC last season, and at BC, which had lost 5 straight and was 0-4 in ACC play. It’s easily the toughest conference in America, and any team can win on any given night. So the Tigers have a tough task, running into a dangerous FSU team that is desperate for a win and will have a home crowd after two straight road games.
This series between Clemson and FSU has been about as even as you can get since the Noles joined the ACC, with countless games going down to the wire, including several in the ACC Tournament. FSU leads the all-time series 41-32, but the Tigers won the last meeting 76-63. The Tigers are 8-22 all-time in Tallahassee. Last winning there in 2015.
Other than the benefit of home court, circumstances are not on the Noles’ side leading into this game. Their flight in Boston was delayed on Sunday, and they did not arrive home until 12:30 am on Monday morning, giving them less than 48 hours before tipping off against Clemson, and they have traveled to the northeast twice in the last week. The Tigers, on the other hand, have had a nice 6-day break after a much-needed home win over Georgia Tech.
Florida State lost a trio of its best players from last year’s Elite 8 team: Bacon, Beasley and Isaac—all of whom are playing in the NBA. Isaac was the 6th overall pick in the draft after his freshman season. However, the Noles still have one of the deepest teams in the country, which is lucky for them because they have been fraught with injuries. Phil Cofer, the Noles’ leading scorer from last season, missed the Boston College game with a foot injury and will likely miss this game as well. Starters Terrance Mann and Trent Forrest have both been playing through foot injuries of their own—Mann with a bruised heel and Forrest with turf toe. Former McDonald’s All-American M.J. Walker dealt with a knee injury earlier in the season, which has impeded his development.
Picking up the slack for the Noles has been sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele, the most pleasant surprise of the season for FSU by far. He only averages 18 minutes per game coming off the bench, but he leads the Noles with 12.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He is averaging better than 14 and 8 in ACC play and is coming off a career-high 26 points in 28 minutes at Boston College.
The Noles have an imposing center in 7’4 senior Koumadje, but he is still extremely raw and only averages 6 points and 5.5 rebounds in his 16.6 minutes per game. However, he will alter shots and make things difficult when Reed and Mitchell drive to the rim. He averages 1.7 blocks per game despite playing less than half the game.
Even without Cofer, the Noles go 10-deep, so they like to wear teams down with their full-court and half-court pressure. The Tigers have a good, experienced back court in Mitchell and Reed, so hopefully they won’t have any trouble breaking the press and will keep turnovers to a minimum.
FSU is not a good 3-point shooting team, shooting just 31.3% on the season, and they couldn’t buy one in the loss at Pitt, going just 2-22 from beyond the arc. They were better in the first half at BC, going 5-11, but they were just 3-14 in the second half. Teams seem to have their best shooting games of the season against the Tigers, though, so let’s see if that continues to be the case in Tallahassee.
FSU is a good free-throw shooting team at 73.8% this season, so the Tigers will need to play solid defense without fouling.
The Tigers are 11-6 overall, and Marcquise Reed is coming off a career-high 30 points in the win over Tech. He is just the 37th Tiger in history to score 30 or more in a game. Gabe DeVoe is the last Tiger to do it, with his 31 points in the close loss to Kansas in the Sweet 16 last season. No Clemson player had scored 30 in Littlejohn since K.J. McDaniels in 2014. Shelton Mitchell had a season-high 8 assists and no turnovers in the Tech win. He will need to protect the ball and limit turnovers against that pressing FSU defense.
I believe Eli Thomas will be the key to the Tigers’ fortunes in Tallahassee. If he can stay out of foul trouble and on the floor, he can have a big game. Outside of 7’4 Koumadje, FSU does not have a lot of size in the front court, and I think Eli can out-muscle the rail-thin Koumadje in the paint. The Tigers should get the ball to Eli on offense early and often. Reed and Mitchell should also attack the basket and get to the free throw line. That was the key to Pittsburgh’s success against the Noles last week.
The 6-day break has come at a perfect time for the Tigers, allowing Reed and Mitchell to both rest their knees, and they have some confidence after finally securing that first ACC win. They need to keep the momentum going with another tough road game at NC State coming up, but make no mistake: this will be a tough game. Every game in this conference is—especially on the road.
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