Winners of five straight, the Virginia Cavaliers are the hottest team in the ACC heading into a pivotal road matchup against the Clemson Tigers. The ‘Hoos climbed their way up into 3rd place in the ACC standings with their win over Notre Dame on Wednesday. Things are trending in the right direction, but the toughest matchups are yet to come, starting with Clemson this Saturday.
The Tigers entered the 2023-24 season with more buzz than ever, and they impressed in the non-conference slate with wins over Alabama, TCU, and South Carolina. But ACC play has been a different story, as Clemson’s plummeted to 10th in the standings with a 4-5 ACC record. After a devastating loss at Cameron Indoor last Saturday, the Tigers handled business against Louisville on Tuesday, but they’re in search of a statement win against Bennett’s squad tomorrow.
Will the pitiful Virginia road team resurface against a formidable opponent? Can the Cavaliers secure their second Quad 1 win of the season? We’ll find out which team can boost their tournament resume on Saturday on ESPN.
Game Time: Saturday, February 3, 2PM Eastern
Three Players to Watch
The Tigers star senior is an ACC Player of the Year candidate. He averages 19.9 points per game along with 7.1 rebounds, and he’s logged five double-doubles so far this year. Hall can score on all three levels, but he’s at his best when he’s working in the paint.
This was just 2 points on a night where Hall went for 31 against Georgia Tech, but his ability to use his pivot foot, remain patient, and create an opening in a crowded paint area showcases Hall at his best. He finishes on both sides of the rim comfortably, and he’s particularly difficult to guard on the right-handed baby hook.
Similar to Virginia’s Jake Groves, Hall’s hot spot is the top-of-the-key catch-and-shoot three-pointer.
He’s got a surprisingly quick trigger for 6’10 guy, and he has nice touch from long range. PJ Hall will have an advantage no matter which Cavaliers player is guarding him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tony Bennett throw double-teams his way for much of the night.
The Syracuse grad-transfer guard is another familiar face for Virginia fans. Girard is Clemson’s best three-point shooter, capable of taking over games when he gets hot from distance. He’s hit 56 three-pointers this season which is good for 4th in the ACC (one spot above Isaac McKneely).
If given just a sliver of space, Girard will confidently pull off the dribble from 25 feet out. Girard mostly plays off-ball for Clemson, as Chase Hunter still operates as the point guard more often than not. That being said, Girard leads the team in assists per game (3.2), and he’s crafty around the rim as a passer and finisher.
Whether or not Girard is shadowed by Reece Beekman may determine his role in the offense. When McKneely’s matched up against him, I expect Girard to take control of the offense and force the issue.
The junior forward is undergoing a breakout season. In many ways, Schieffelin is the backbone of this Clemson team. He dives on the floor for loose balls, scraps for offensive rebounds against bigger opponents, and he’s good for a powerful two-handed dunk to energize the Clemson crowd.
Schieffelin is a serious issue on the offensive glass paired up with PJ Hall. He averages 3.3 offensive rebounds per game and 9.6 total rebounds. If too much attention is directed on Hall, Scieffelin will be more than ready to make defenses pay in the paint.
Two Key Matchups
While PJ Hall is the headliner in this game, the starting back court battle may decide the final outcome.
Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely versus Chase Hunter and Joe Girard is a duel between two of the best guard tandems in the ACC. Each player averages over 10 points per game. McKneely and Girard are the three-point snipers, while Beekman and Hunter are the veteran facilitators.
Both Joe Girard and Isaac McKneely are not particularly stout defenders, so it may be a chess-match between the two coaches to try and attack those two players and force them into uncomfortable switches. Most coaches know by now to face-guard McKneely whenever Virginia’s in their half-court offense, but Clemson may have to pick their poison if they choose to have Chase Hunter chase around McKneely, while Beekman gets a favorable matchup with Girard.
As simple as it sounds, in modern college basketball, guard play wins big games.
Clemson’s Offense vs Virginia’s Defense
Clemson sports the 3rd best offense in the ACC — behind Duke and UNC — with an all-around balanced attack. They’re Top 30 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage. They also take care of the ball well: they’re in the bottom 30 in turnover percentage and blocked shots percentage.
On the flip side, Virginia has the 2nd best defense in the ACC right now, and they’re Top 10 overall in Division I. A large part of this number is based on the ‘Hoos ability to turn other teams over and block shots at the rim.
It’s a tale as old as time in this matchup: the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
In Virginia’s favor, Clemson’s shot horribly from three-point range in ACC play (29.6%) which can often be the Cavalier defense’s kryptonite. That being said, Clemson has an undeniably stronger tandem of big-men, so securing defensive rebounds and helping out in the post will once again be key for the ‘Hoos.
Road games haven’t been pretty for Virginia this season. They’re 2-4 in true road games, with all 4 losses being blowouts. However, they’ve won their last two on the road, perhaps marking a shift in this season’s trajectory. A win at Clemson on ESPN would put the Cavaliers back in the national spotlight, and I would expect many analysts to project them in the NCAA Tournament field come Monday.
I think it will be a back-and-fourth fight on Saturday, with multiple scoring runs from both teams, but in the end, I trust Reece Beekman to get it done down the stretch. Virginia will snag its second Quad 1 win, their 6th win in a row, and maybe surpass Duke for 2nd in the ACC standings.
Prediction: Virginia 68, Clemson 66