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Virginia Cavaliers Basketball: Clemson Preview

The Hoos travel to Clemson for a dicey road game against the Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson basketball hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2011. That streak seems likely to end, as the Tigers are currently 11-5 and ranked 30th by Ken Pomeroy. According to Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketlogy on ESPN.com, Clemson is a 7 seed. The Tigers are, however, riding a 3 game losing streak, including a 12 point loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday.

For the past 2 years, the Tigers have been led by Jaron Blossomgame. He’s been the leading scorer for the past 2 seasons and he’s leading this year by a wide margin. He was 1st team All-ACC last year. He almost went pro after last season after averaging 18 points and nearly 7 rebounds per game and shooting 44% from 3. He was seen a possible first round pick, but chose to return for his senior season.

So far, Blossomgame might be regretting that decision. While Clemson is much improved, Blossomgame’s are all pretty much identical to last year’s. Even though he’s struggled from outside, he’s remained quited productive. Just last week, he had 24 and 22 points in losses to UNC and Notre Dame, respectively. Blossomgam torched Virginia twice last year, going for 23 and 31 in two Wahoo victories.

Of course, an 11-4 team must have more than one player. Blossomgame averages 18 points per game, which leads the team by a considerable margin. Five other players average at least 9 points per game. Senior Avery Holmes is a transfer from San Francisco who averaged 10 ppg last year and is around the same this year. He’s a career 40% shooter from downtown and has taken 2/3 of his shots from behind the arc this year. He’s 6’2” 195 and starts at the 2, so Darius Thompson and Kyle Guy should be able to hang with him.

Last year’s second leading scorer was PF Donte Grantham, at just over 10 ppg. So far this year, he’s just under 10 ppg, but he’s 4th on the team. He’s a stretch 4 who takes roughly half his shots from behind the arc, and shoots about 35%. He’s not much of an interior defender, but he’s become pretty decent on the glass. He’s up to around 5.5 rebounds per game, which isn’t great for a PF, but is better than the 4.1 he averaged last season. Grantham hasn’t done much in 3 career matchups with the Hoos. This could be a game for Isaiah Wilkins to crash the offensive glass, because Grantham isn’t going to be able to consistently keep him away.

The Tiger who will work the glass is senior C Sidy Djitte, a 6’10” 240 pounder from Senegal. Djitte averages just 7 points per game, but also averages 8.5 rebounds and over a block a game. Djitte could cause serious problems for the Hoos. He’s way too athletic for Jack Salt, but he’s also probably too experienced for Mamadi Diakite. This is the first year he’s really been a regular contributor, because the Tigers had Landry Nnoko (from Cameroon) at C for the past 3 years. A year ago, he averaged 5 and 5 in about 15 minutes per game. Now he’s up to 25 minutes per game. He still has some problems with foul trouble, so the Hoos would be wise to attack him with the dribble. They could also try getting the ball inside to Jack Salt occasionally. We know Salt doesn’t have much offensive game, but he should be able to power his way through Djitte, and hopefully draw some fouls.

Behind Djitte is Elijah Thomas, a transfer from Texas A&M. Thomas was a top prep recruit in 2015, but struggled to see the floor for the Aggies. He was overweight and only saw action in 7 games early in the season. Thomas has dropped over 20 pounds since his Aggie days and he’s showing the interior moves that made him a top-50 recruit. He’s not the most athletic of big men, but he can score. And though he doesn’t have a reputation as a good shot blocker, he’s blocked 4 or more shots twice this year including last weekend against Notre Dame.

The final piece of the starting puzzle is PG Shelton Mitchell, a transfer from Vanderbilt. He isn’t much of a scorer, though he’s averaging 9.3 ppg and shooting 41% from 3. He shot just 20% from 3 in his one year at Vandy. His strength is running a team. He’s a good passer and a good leader. He’s a bit like London Perrantes was earlier in his career. He’s steady, he doesn’t panic and he knows where to go with the ball. Behind Mitchell is Marcquise Reed, a transfer from Robert Morris. Reed is a combo guard and seems time at both guard spots. He’s leads the team in 3 point FG% at almost 46%, but his strength is getting to the rim. He’s 3rd on the team in scoring (behind Blossomgame and Holmes), but he’s 2nd in FTA which shows how good he is at getting to the rim.

This is the most-talented team Brad Brownell has had at Clemson. Led by a preseason 3rd team All-American and having a number of players around him who can score and defend. The matchup, though, seems to be a good one for the Hoos. The ways to beat the Hoos and the Pack Line are three-point shooting and beating the Hoos inside.

Clemson is a poor rebounding team and while the Hoos aren’t as strong on the glass as they’ve been in recent years, they’re still solid. And the Tigers have shooters, but as a team they aren’t a great shooting team. They are shooting under 35% from 3 (184th nationally), despite taking nearly 38% of their shots from there. Defensively, Clemson tries to pressure the ball, generating steals and turnovers. But the Hoos are still one of the best teams in the country at holding on to the ball and are led by a senior PG who has is finally playing up the level we expected of him this season.

As with many Wahoo games this year, the game may very well come down to which team shoots better from the perimeter. Last week, Pittsburgh was lights out from 3 and snuck past the Hoos in OT. Then Wake Forest struggled from 3 and the Hoos managed a convincing win. The Hoos will need to stick with Clemson’s shooters, keep Blossomgame from completely taking over the game (a la Dwayne Bacon) and hopefully make some outside shots.