CLEMSON vs Wake Forest
Wake Forest continues to struggle as a program in its fifth season under the legendary Danny Manning. The Deacs are 8-12 overall and 1-7 in the ACC, losing their last 4 games. Senior guard Torry Johnson has missed the last 2 games with a shoulder injury, and his status for Sunday is doubtful. Johnson averaged over 20 minutes per game, and his absence has meant increased playing time for freshman guard Michael Wynn, who averaged less than 6 minutes per game prior to the injury.
As mentioned, Florence product Sharone Wright, Jr. will start in his first game at Littlejohn, the former home of his father, who starred at Clemson and was a rare top-10 NBA Draft pick for the Tigers. I was a freshman at Clemson when Wright played his final season with the Tigers, so I saw him play many a game in Littlejohn. Unlike the big-man father, the son is a lean, lengthy guard. He has had his moments this season but only averages 7.1 points per game, shooting 25% from beyond the arc and 51% at the free throw line.
Wake's other starting guard also has a famous NBA father. Junior Brandon Childress is the son of Randolph Childress, one of the greatest players in Wake history. Randolph played with Tim Duncan and was MVP of the 1995 ACC Tournament when he averaged 35.7 points and 7 assists per game, hitting the tournament-winning shot in overtime against Stackhouse, Wallace and UNC. Randolph is now coaching his son on the Wake staff. Fortunately for the Tigers, Brandon is not as talented as his father, but he is the leading scorer for the Deacs, averaging 15.9 points with 4.2 assists per game. Childress did an impressive job guarding prolific scorer Ky Bowman in their last-second loss to BC last week, and you can expect him to blanket Marcquise Reed on Sunday. The exertion on defense against Bowman seemed to tax Childress's offense--he was 0-9 from beyond the arc with 8 points in that game. Hopefully for the Tigers, guarding Reed will also take its toll on him.
Wake has a 7-footer in Olivier Sarr, but he is slight at 235 pounds, and I think Eli Thomas can our-muscle him in the paint and on the low blocks. Sarr averages less than 21 minutes per game. Wake's front court is pretty thin. The Deacs' other two big men, Smart and Mucius, are both freshmen and raw. Mucius is only 6'8 and 190 pounds, so the Tigers have an advantage in the paint in my opinion--especially if Sarr gets in foul trouble. Freshman small forward Jaylen Hoard has shown some flashes, scoring 22 points against BC last week.
Danny Manning and Wake will press from time to time, but that would be nothing new for the Tigers--they have seen it from their last 3 opponents and have done fine. Wake is dead last in the ACC in turnover margin, steals and scoring defense. The Deacs are also second to last in 3-point percentage at 30.2%, which is great news for the Tigers because they have been torched by teams from beyond the arc all season. In fact, the Tigers are dead last in the ACC in 3-point defense.
The Tigers are 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the ACC, but they are coming off perhaps their best performance of the season, beating Pittsburgh 82-69 on Tuesday. After one of the most devastating losses in program history--a buzzer-beater loss at No.21 NC State after going 2-8 at the free throw line in the final minute--the Tigers came out swinging and left no doubt against Pitt. After failing to make a single 3-pointer at NC State for the first time this season, Mitchell and Reed made back-to-back 3-pointers to start the game, and they never looked back. They had a sensational first half on both ends, leading 51-23 at the break. Reed, who was the leading free throw shooter in the ACC and #1 career free throw shooter in Clemson history, missed his last 4 free throw attempts in the final minute at NC State, allowing for the buzzer-beater loss. Brad Brownell told me after the Pitt game that after returning from Raleigh, Reed immediately went in the gym and shot about 200 free throws. It is clear Reed was able to put the debacle out of his mind because he went 6-6 at the line against Pitt and scored 26 points. In my opinion,
A road win against a legitimate top-15 NC State team would have been enormous for the Tigers' NCAA prospects and confidence, but they did not let the disappointment define them and fester like many teams might have. Instead, they rallied, and the blowout win over Pitt couldn't have come at a better time for this team. Despite their record, the Tigers have a top-30 team when they are healthy. Of their 5 losses in the best conference in the land, 4 of them were against teams that have been ranked most of the season, and the other was at Syracuse, which showed how good it was by beating No.1 Duke in Cameron. 4 of the Tigers' 5 conference losses were on the road, and the only one at home was UVA, the last undefeated team in the nation. The Tigers have had an extra day of rest, as Wake played Louisville on Wednesday night. The Tigers need to get off to another fast start on Sunday like they did against Pitt. Wake's morale is fragile with the season they are having, but let them hang around too long, and they will start to believe they can pull off a rare road win. This Wake team beat NC State at home, albeit when starting State point guard Markell Johnson was out, but it shows Wake is capable of beating a good team. Eli Thomas needs to stay out of foul trouble, and hopefully the Tigers will get a good game out of Simms. If both of those happen, I expect the Tigers to win by double digits.
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