Next on the ACC schedule, following a couple of bad losses to Maryland and Wake Forest, Virginia will host Clemson tonight at John Paul Jones Arena, with a scheduled tip of 9:00 p.m. Because we're all caught up in the National Signing Day shuffle, we brought Eric Dowling (ggggmen08) from SBNation's Shakin The Southland and Brandon Rink from another Clemson Blog, Orange and White, to answer a few questions for us. It's always helpful to get a few different folks' opinion on the matter.
Streaking the Lawn: Clemson was picked in the preseason to finish right smack in the middle of the ACC pack, at 7th. The Tigers are tied for fourth in the ACC (with 3 others)…how has this season played out for Tigers fans? Expectations met, exceeded?
Shakin the Southland: So far, I think most fans would agree that expectations have at least been met, if not exceeded. The odds were stacked against this team heading into the season. We brought in a new coach who runs a completely different system than Oliver Purnell, lost our best player in Trevor Booker, and had 2 scholarship players quit before the season got underway (Note: Noel Johnson actually played in a few games). Clemson's largest margin of defeat so far this season is 10 at UNC, and that margin isn't indicative of how the game played out. It was a 1 point game with under 4 minutes left until someone put a lid on our basket. I think considering those circumstances, this team has exceeded expectations to this point.
Orange and White: Exceeded for sure. After a stretch where Clemson lost to Michigan badly at home, rival South Carolina on the road and dropped the first ACC game to FSU - it looked like the Tigers were in for a loooong season. On top of that, Demontez Stitt (Clemson's leading scorer) had to have knee surgery - December was a bleak month. But Stitt only missed two games, and Clemson has won 10 of their last 12 since the three-game losing streak to get above .500 in ACC play and 15-6 overall.
With Trevor Booker and Oliver Purnell gone, expectations were kinda in a state of flux with a coach few people had heard of coming in, but Brownell has impressed through 21 games as Clemson's coach.
STL: It doesn’t seem like Clemson has any one star player leading the charge, is that right? That worries me. Who should Virginia keep an eye out for?
STS: That's pretty much spot on. But although we don't have any one star player, Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant are the catalysts for this team. Stitt is the one player on our team that can break a defense down and create his own shot. Grant on the other hand is a blue collar worker down low. He does a lot of his work on the offensive glass and subsequently gets the free throw line a lot as a result. If these 2 guys have a bad game, Clemson would be hard pressed to beat anyone.
O&W: It starts with the two seniors in guard Demontez Stitt (13.8 PPG) and forward Jerai Grant (12.6 PPG). Both have improved each year as a Tiger, but under Brownell's motion offense, they each have taken a bigger step forward on the offensive end. At guard, Andre Young is hitting 39% of his 3-pointers as the Tigers' top perimeter threat. Beyond that, this Tiger team is filled with a lot of role players that fill in the gaps on both ends.
STL: Talk to me about first-year head coach Brad Brownell? What’s different between this year’s Clemson squad and last year’s, and how much is attributable to the new coach?
STS: There is a lot to like about Brownell. Clemson fans had become tired of Purnell's 15-0 starts against weak competition, only to falter down the stretch and either get sent to the NIT or lose in the 1st round the NCAA tournament. Purnell's style was to full court press for 40 minutes, speed up the tempo, create turnovers, and score in transition. When we faced an opponent with good coaching and a good backcourt we were doomed. Teams would break our press and turn that into easy points. The result of that is that we would then be forced to score in our halfcourt sets, which was always painful on the eyes. Brownell's style is a lot like Bennett's. Slow the pace, control the tempo, and play good defense. He runs motion a motion offense with a lot of 2-man pick-and-rolls thrown in. It's a major step up from the WTF offense that Purnell ran.
O&W: Under Purnell, Clemson's shtick was the press. They'd press you off the bus, at the team meal, in the locker room...well, you get the point. Under Brownell, he has taken the aggressiveness on D and contained to the half-court - offensively is where the biggest change has come. With the previous regime, the offense was either get a steal for a layup or throw it to Trevor Booker/jack a 3-pointer - Brownell's team has a discernible rhythm to it. His motion style moves the ball around and emphasizes strong shooting (that Clemson is still developing).
Brownell has squeezed about as much as he could from this team at this point in the season through the typical transfers with a new coach and some key injuries.
STL: Virginia can get…sluggish… on offense. How can Virginia attack the Tiger defense?
STS: Lack of size has been a problem for us this year defensively. Due to our lack of depth, we occasionally trot out a 3-guard lineup, where the tallest guard is 6'2. Teams can shoot over the top of us, and, if you have solid rebounding guards we can be abused that way too. We've been doing a better job on the boards of late, but to be honest, Sene's offensive rebounding could be a huge factor in this game. Jerai Grant is probably generously listed at 6'8 and Devin Booker is also 6'8. I think second chance points could play a big role in this game.
O&W: They have to take care of the ball. Every pass needs to be crisp - every dribble needs to be guarded because Clemson will play up on everybody. Virginia has to take advantage of the aggressiveness by setting good screens and moving around to get open. Careless passes and little rhythm offensively was what doomed FSU against the Tigers last week.
STL: Oh heck, while I’m at it, what’s the secret to defending Clemson? I’ll pass the secret along to our boys in Charlottesville.
STS: If I was Bennett, I'd hedge on every pick-and-roll and get the ball out of Stitt's hands. He is the facilitator for this offense and he is what makes it go. If you force the ball out of Stitt's hands, the rest of the guys tend to rely too much on the 3 ball. In Clemson's last two losses, both road games, we shot 29 and 26 3-pointers, respectively. That's too many 3's for a team that really only has one pure shooter (Andre Young). Our reliance on the 3 in crucial situations was costly in those games.
O&W: Clemson's not afraid to work the shot clock down to find a shot so staying patient is key. Grant is the guy to focus on in the paint - collapse on him and make him pass it, but make sure not to leave Stitt or Young open behind the perimeter.
STL: Alright, prediction time.
STS: Coming off a big win over FSU, this is a game that Clemson would lose during the Purnell era. I'm going to attempt to move on from that era of pessimism. Clemson gets it done, 64-58.
O&W: Clemson's defense has been just suffocating in their last few games, and Virginia has been known to fall into scoring droughts. I'm taking the Tigers in a low scoring game - 65-56.
Thanks to both of these guys for sitting down with us - it's really helpful to see the similar viewpoints!