CLEMSON at Miami
This has been the toughest season for the Canes and Jim Larranaga in his 8 seasons at Miami. They are 10-13 overall and 2-9 in the ACC, thanks in large part to a decimated roster. The Canes are down to 7 scholarship players after various injuries and suspensions--most recently losing a couple big men in Dewan Hernandez (suspended, withdrew) and Deng Gak (injured). However, the Canes have actually looked better in their last couple games, beating Notre Dame at home and leading No.8 UNC by 3 with 10 seconds left in Chapel Hill before losing by 3 in overtime.
It all starts for Miami at the point guard position. Sophomore Chris Lykes will remind many of Muggsy Bogues. In fact, Bogues and Lykes are both from the state of Maryland, the former playing at legendary Dunbar High. The diminutive Lykes is listed at 5'7 and 157 pounds, but he might be even shorter than that. He is quick off the dribble, tough as nails and can pull up and drill a 3-pointer in the blink of an eye. He scored 27 points in the overtime loss at Chapel Hill on Saturday and nearly willed the Canes to the biggest upset of the season in the ACC. The Tar Heels did a good job of double-teaming him late in the game, and that seemed to give him problems because he is so short. The Tigers might do well to attempt the same from time to time. Lykes is a 32.6% 3-point shooter, but he was 5-11 at Chapel Hill.
The Canes' shooting guard, Zach Johnson, sprained his ankle last week, but he showed no ill effects on Saturday, scoring 13 points and going 3-5 from beyond the arc in Chapel Hill. Depending on how his ankle is this week, you may see Anthony Mack start in his place. Johnson averages 13.1 points per game, while Mack is at just 2.7 points per game. Dejan Vasiljevic is a good 3-point shooter at 39% on the season, but he is just 7 for his last 32 attempts from beyond the arc and was 1-5 at UNC on Saturday, so hopefully for the Tigers he will stay cold. He did manage to score in their last couple games, however, scoring 15 in the Notre Dame win and 11 in the overtime loss at UNC. 6'10 Aussie Sam Waardenburg has stepped up his play over the last couple weeks, averaging 10 points per game in 4 of the last 5.
Brad Brownell is very familiar with senior guard Anthony Lawrence and senior center Ebuka Izundu. Brownell recruited both of them in high school. The former had a big game at Chapel Hill, scoring 17 points, going 3-8 from beyond the arc. Lawrence is a long guard at 6'7 and could be a matchup problem for the Tigers.
Expect the Canes to play man defense exclusively with little or no press. Miami is the second-worst offensive rebounding team in the ACC, and the Tigers are #5 in defensive rebounding, so the Canes shouldn't get too many second or third-chance opportunities. The Canes are dead last in the ACC in rebound margin, and it's going to be even harder for them to rebound with the loss of Hernandez and Gak mentioned earlier. Miami is a good free throw shooting team at 73.6%.
Amazingly, as of today, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed. Very few envisioned the Tigers returning to the big dance just a couple of weeks ago, but when the Tigers fell to 1-5 in the ACC, I wrote that I still believed they could turn things around and make the tournament.
One of the keys to the Tigers' 4-game win streak has been the improved defensive play. It has been a struggle for defensive-minded Brad Brownell over the last couple years to get this offensive-minded core group of players to embrace a defensive mentality, but they seem to have finally come around, led by Eli Thomas. Eli has 19 blocks in the last 3 games and has only played 69 minutes in those games, so he has averaged a block every three and a half minutes! The Tigers have allowed just 43 points per game in their last 3--the fewest in a 3-game span under Brownell--and they allowed just 23 in the first half against Pitt before letting up in the second half. The Tigers have had the worst 3-point defense in the ACC all season, but their opponents are just 12-53 (22.6) in the last 3 games, which would be the best in the conference.
Eli Thomas has also been superb on the offensive end. He is #8 in the nation in field goal percentage at 65.7% and 2nd in the ACC behind Zion Williamson, the Spartanburg native who was oh-so-close to signing with Clemson but instead chose Duke and has not only been the best freshman in the nation but a candidate for National Player of the Year. The biggest challenge for Eli Thomas throughout his career has been staying on the court and out of foul trouble. If he can do that at Miami, the Tigers will have a very good chance against the Canes.
Leading scorer Marcquise Reed has scored 34 points in the last 2 games, but he is just 2 for his last 11 from beyond the arc. The Tigers need him to find his stroke again at Miami. Shelton Mitchell was sensational on Saturday in the Tigers' win over No.11 Virginia Tech, scoring a team-high 22 points and going 5-9 from beyond the arc, but he has been inconsistent all season--especially on the road. If he can start consistently making some 3's on the road, the Tigers will be very tough to beat. Miami has the second-worst 3-point defense in the ACC, behind Clemson, so this would be a good game for Reed and Mitchell to hit some 3's. Freshman Hunter Tyson had his best game by far against the Hokies, converting a big baseline reverse-layup just before the half and making a big 3-pointer late in the game. It will be interesting to see if he gets some more minutes and builds on that confidence.
On Wednesday night, the Tigers should take advantage of their size against a woefully thin front court for Miami. If I'm Brad Brownell, I'm feeding Eli Thomas on the low post early and often. If the Tigers can get Izundu into foul trouble early, it could be a long night for the Canes. Eli must avoid the early fouls himself so the Tigers can exploit their advantage in the paint. The Tigers will need to contain point guard Chris Lykes. If he has another game like he had in Chapel Hill on Saturday, this will be a tight game. If the Tigers can hold him to his season average of 16 points and Thomas and Simms can stay out of foul trouble, I think the Tigers win by at least a couple scores for their fifth straight, setting up a huge game at No.16 Louisville. Win at Miami and at Louisville for 6 straight wins, and the Tigers will definitely find themselves back in the rankings next week!
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