The No. 4 and undefeated Virginia Cavaliers put their 11-game ACC road winning streak on the line with a trip to Clemson on Saturday. As was the case two years ago, the Hoos are visiting the Tigers the day of Clemson Football’s national championship parade.
Last year’s Tigers made the NCAA as a 5-seed and went to the Sweet 16. They did that largely on their defense, which was top 10 nationally. They finished the year as the 14th ranked team. However, the defense has fallen off this year, which has caused team performance to drop off. They currently are 24th nationally in defense, and 40th overall (all ranks via KenPom).
The graduation of Gabe Devoe, their best perimeter defender last year, was a big loss. They also lost Donte Grantham, but he missed the second half of last year without a huge impact. Grantham, however, provided outside shooting, which the Tigers could use. The Tigers rank just 269th in three point shooting, and have just one shooter above 36%, who is fifth on the team in attempts.
Despite losing two senior leaders, Clemson is one of the most experienced teams in the nation with four seniors in the starting lineup. Interestingly, none of those four began their career at Clemson. It’s also a big lineup, with three starters over 6’7.
That size begins with Elijah Thomas, one of the top interior players in the country. The 6’9, 245 lb. big man is among the nations leaders in FG%, FT rate, block rate, and rebound rate.
The Tigers rank 14th nationally in two point FG%. They are also among the better teams at defensive rebounding, shot blocking and two point FG defense. Thomas gets a lot of his buckets off of the offensive glass, or off of easy buckets created by his guards. But he’s also a capable post scorer, as shown here. That’s not an easy shot, especially against Syracuse’s length.
So, yes, the Tigers are a very good interior team, but they are not a good perimeter team. As mentioned, they can’t shoot. They are 280th nationally in three point defense, can’t shoot, and can’t stop the opposition’s shooters. That’s not a good combination. The Tigers also rank 287th in turnover rate.
On the perimeter, the Tigers are led by Marcquise Reed. Reed’s three point percentage has dropped every year, and is down under 33% this year. If you can’t make 33% of your treys, you shouldn’t be shooting treys. Then again, a year ago, 44% of Reed’s shots were threes. This year, that’s down to just 31%. In two games against Virginia last year, Reed scored 12 points on 5-of-24 from the field. That’s not gonna get it done. He was 1-for-15 from downtown over the two games.
The Tigers’ nominal point guard is 6’4 lefty Shelton Mitchell. I say “nominal” because he and Reed swap ball-handling duties. Mitchell is the more natural point guard, but Reed has a higher assist rate and Mitchell is an even worse shooter than Reed, at under 28%. He and Reed are tied for the team lead in FGA (Reed missed three games), but Mitchell takes well over 40% of his shots from downtown. He’s not really a guy who can blow by a defender, so sometimes those shots are all he can get.
Last year, for the most part, Kyle Guy guarded Mitchell while Devon Hall guarded Reed. Ty Jerome was on Gabe DeVoe. In the first matchup, at JPJ, Mitchell did not score in 28 minutes. You may recall that Virginia won that game 61-36. In the second matchup, in the ACC Tournament, Mitchell had 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting in 38 minutes. That was a much closer game. Most likely, Coach Bennett keeps Guy on Mitchell. If Kihei Clark gets into the game, he’ll probably be on Reed, who is quicker and more aggressive than Mitchell.
The one guy who can shoot is 6’8 Croatian David Skara. Skara’s minutes are way up this year, in part because they need shooters, and in part because they simply don’t have much depth. Skara shoots just over 40% from three (and that’s coming off an 0-for-4 performance against Syracuse on Wednesday). He’s just a 31% career shooter, but he’s already taken more shots than he did all of last season. He is a shooter, and is just now playing enough to show off his ability. He doesn’t do a whole lot else, though. If he’s in the game, that likely means he’s guarding either Braxton Key or DeAndre Hunter. That’s a big mismatch for Virginia.
Up front with Skara and Thomas is sophomore Aamir Simms. Simms is a another good shot blocker, but isn’t really a good man-to-man defender. He’s also not a strong offensive player. This is pretty much the extent of his offense.
He shoots about half his shots from downtown. He makes almost 36%, which isn’t bad considering the Tigers make just 31.6% as a team.
Simms is also strong in transition. Clemson doesn’t run much, but both Simms and Thomas are very good at getting out on the break and finishing in transition.
Brad Brownell really only has one legit substitute, sophomore Clyde Trapp. Trapp can shoot it a little bit (more than half his shots come from downtown, but he makes just 32%), and is a smart player. He might be the best perimeter defender on the team. He averages about 24 minutes per game. Against Syracuse, Trapp was the only non-starter to get onto the scoresheet.
Both Simms and Skara are big guys who tend to play on the perimeter offensively. That will allow Bennett to use several different lineups. Both Key and Hunter could guard either Skara or Simms. Diakite could also handle one of them. Another option he has this game is Jay Huff, especially against Skara, Huff has a size advantage as well as a quickness advantage that he could exploit on both ends of the floor. If he gets the playing time, this could be a big game for Huff.
Clemson is similar to FSU, though perhaps not as talented. They have a lot of size and a very strong interior game, but they can’t shoot. They are also a good defensive team. They’ll need to knock down enough outside shots to keep the Pack Line honest. In the first matchup last year, Clemson shot 3-for-20 from downtown and lost by 25. In the rematch, they weren’t much better (5-for-25), but it was enough to keep the game closer.
They also got to the line 23 times in the rematch, versus just four times in the first matchup. Virginia hasn’t been quite as good this year at defending without fouling, but they are still among the top 20% of the nation. That’s another path Clemson could have to staying in this game. They are playing at home, and if they get a little home-cooking from the refs, they could shoot enough FTs to stay in it.
Ultimately, Clemson really has neither the depth nor the perimeter shooting to stay with Virginia.