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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 2 Virginia returns home to host No. 18 Clemson

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Can the Hoos improve to 8-0 to start ACC play?

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

After back-to-back road wins, the Virginia Cavaliers head back home for just their third matchup against a ranked team. The No. 18 Clemson Tigers comes to Charlottesville with a 16-3 record (5-2 in the ACC). This is a team that won just 17 games a year ago and graduated one of their top all-time players in Jarron Blossomgame (Seriously, Blossomgame is fifth all-time for Clemson in scoring and eighth in rebounding. He doesn’t get enough credit).

Clemson’s two ACC losses are on the road to North Carolina and NC State, but they won at Ohio State (now No. 13) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and at Boston College (ask Duke how easy that is). They also beat Florida in the Orange Bowl Classic in Miami, which is technically a neutral site game, but obviously an advantage for the Gators.

The Tigers have four players who average more than 32 minutes per game, making it less surprising that Clemson has five players who average double figure scoring. No other Tiger averages more than four points per game or more than two rebounds per game. Conversely, the Hoos have seven players averaging over five points per game and eight players over two rebounds per game.

All of that just means that the Cavaliers have more depth than the Tigers, but depth isn’t everything. Clemson is a veteran team, with almost all of their minutes coming from either juniors or seniors. Many of those players are transfers, including leading scorer Marcquise Reed (2016 transfer from Robert Morris). Reed averaged 10 points per game last year, and has improved this year with more opportunity. He’s over 40% from three, he slashes and gets to the FT line, and he’s an 86% FT shooter.

Reed is an off-guard, but he also plays some point. That usually only happens when Clemson goes big. The PG is Shelton Mitchell, a 2016 transfer from Vanderbilt. Mitchell is a strong leader, but doesn’t shoot the ball all that well and struggles to finish inside. He’s under 40% shooting for the year, but excels at getting to the FT line and makes his FTs at over 84%.

Another Tiger playing tons of minutes is senior forward Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL on Saturday against Notre Dame. Grantham is a four year starter who was putting up career highs in points and rebounds while shooting 42% from three and playing strong defense. Losing him hurts Clemson big time and the Hoos will certainly benefit from Grantham’s absence.

Clemson has two guys who play the 5, Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M transfer) and Mark Donnal (graduate transfer from Michigan). They are vastly different players, so it is possible that they will spend some time on the floor together. Thomas is a bruiser and is elite on the glass and can score inside (watch him below bully his way inside for a bucket). Donnal, on the other hand, is a stretch big man who has made 10-for-20 from three this year and can score in a variety of ways.

Grantham’s minutes will likely go to Valpariaso transfer David Skara, with freshman Aamir Simms also getting some extra run. Skara, from Croatia, can shoot it from outside and he’s tall enough to play up front. He’s lacking in bulk and strength, so he has a bit of a reputation for being “soft”, and he can be bullied by bigger guys sometimes. Simms is an athletic forward who can finish through contact, grab rebounds and defend inside. He hasn’t shown much of an offensive game, he gets beaten up around the paint, and he gambles on defense, too often leading to layups.

The final rotation player is senior Gabe DeVoe. His scoring average entering this season was just five, but he’s career high in just about every statistic. DeVoe is the team’s best perimeter defender, plus he’s a smart player who doesn’t force things or take bad shots. He’s improved in almost every way over his career. While Devon Hall will match up with Reed, Clemson’s most dangerous scorer, don’t be surprised if DeVoe takes Hall, since he’s got the size and strength necessary to guard Hall.

Clemson is a strong team, ranked No. 13 on KenPom. That ranking, of course doesn’t take Grantham’s injury into account. Also, the Tigers don’t match up particularly well with Virginia. If you take a position-by-position look at the matchup, the only position that is clearly in Clemson’s favor is the 5. Thomas was a top-100 recruit (as was Donnal) and Salt isn’t more than a brute inside (a very good brute, but still).

As noted, Clemson doesn’t have a lot of depth. That makes Grantham’s injury hurt all the more. You kinda feel bad for Grantham, who has started every game since his freshman year, and now that Clemson is finally good, he goes down with a nasty injury. With Grantham out, the Tigers will rely on Reed, Mitchell, and DeVoe even more.

Don’t be surprised if Clemson goes big. Donnal’s presence at the 4 would pull Isaiah Wilkins out of the paint and make him guard on the perimeter. That would help open things up for the wings to penetrate and either dish or score. Skara can do some of that as well, but he’s isn’t as good a shooter as Donnal.

Brownell has options to replace Grantham, but none of them really replace what he brings. Coach Bennett, on the other hand, has a lot of options. DeAndre Hunter’s strong play basically means the Cavaliers can matchup with anything Clemson throws at them. Hunter has the length to guard Donnal on the perimeter, which would be a pretty big mismatch on the other end.

Tons of options for Virginia, fewer for Clemson. Plus, a sellout JPJ crowd looks pretty good for the Cavaliers.