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ACC Tournament Semifinals BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. Clemson

Can the Hoos hold Clemson to another 36-point performance?

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On January 20th, Clemson’s season changed dramatically. Senior forward Donte Grantham tore his ACL against Notre Dame and was lost for the season. At the time, the Clemson Tigers were 16-3 (including a win that night). They’d finish the regular season 23-8, which is a tremendous record, but they were just 6-5 without Grantham. That included two wins over Georgia Tech, one over Pitt and one over Wake Forest. It also included a 61-36 defeat to the mighty Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville.

It is tough to hold a good team to 36 points. Yes, Clemson was struggling without Grantham. He was their second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder, and second-leading shot blocker. He was also a 42% three-point shooter and a 56% shooter overall. It is tough to replace that kind of production.

Taking a lot of Grantham’s minutes has been 6’7” freshman Aamir Simms. Simms has potential, but he’s just a 30% shooter from outside and he’s simply not as dangerous inside, although he can finish inside pretty well if he can get there. He’s averaged 6.5 points per game since Grantham’s injury, up from just 3.6 on the season. He’s also averaging over five rebounds per game and a block a game. He’s had some ups and downs, as is expected for a freshman, but he’s also looked dangerous at times. He scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds in the matchup against Virginia.

Junior Marcquise Reed, a transfer from Robert Morris, is the leading scorer, at over 16 per game. Senior Gabe DeVoe is the second-leading scorer with Grantham sidelined. Both of them do a lot of damage from behind the arc. Reed takes about 46% of his shots from 3-point land and DeVoe takes almost 60% of his shots from downtown. As a team, Clemson takes 40% of their shots from deep (Virginia takes just 35%). DeVoe is the best defender on the team and likely gets tasked with guarding Devon Hall because he’s the only Tiger with the size to handle him on the perimeter.

That works very well when the shots are dropping. In their quarterfinal matchup with Boston College yesterday, Clemson made 12-of-28 (43%) from deep. At JPJ, they were just 3-of-20, and that’s why they scored just 36 points. Clemson scored 90 points to BC’s 82 yesterday.

Big man Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M transfer) is a beast on the boards, blocks shots and can finish inside, but he’s a poor free throw shooter and has at times had trouble staying on the floor due to foul trouble. Against the Hoos, Thomas had just two points on 1-of-3 shooting and had four rebounds. He also played just 15 minutes. In Clemson’s home loss to Duke, he had 13 points and 15 rebounds in 29 minutes of play. Thomas, at times, seems to lack effort and interest. If he gets locked and loaded, he’s a handful. Luckily, Jack Salt is also a handful. (At least on defense.)

Clemson’s final piece is lefty PG Shelton Mitchell (a Vandy transfer). Mitchell also takes about 45% of his shots from outside, but he isn’t quite as good a shooter as his teammates on the wing. Mitchell is not a particularly good defender, but he’s a strong offensive PG who can create for others as well as create plays for himself off the dribble. He went scoreless in the first matchup, 0-of-3 from the field, though he did have two assists and three rebounds.

Even before Grantham’s injury, there wasn’t much depth here. With his loss, there is almost no bench. There’s reserve big man Mark Donnal (Michigan transfer), who is a stretch big. He can block some shots because of his length, but he’s not strong enough to provide much on the interior. The other reserve is Valparaiso transfer David Skara, who is a solid interior defender but doesn’t provide much offense. Donnal and Skara combined for three points and one rebound against Virginia in 34 combined minutes of action.

Those two reserve big men combine for about 30 minutes per game. The three backcourt players (Reed, DeVoe, and Mitchell) almost never come off the floor. That trio all played at least 38 minutes yesterday against BC. Freshman Anthony Oliver may see a few minutes. He’s a spot shooter, and that’s about it. He had nine points against BC on 3-of-3 from deep in just 8 minutes.

Clemson is a strong defensive team. They defend aggressively and they have a very good shot blocker waiting in the paint to deter anything off the bounce. They struggle to defend the 3-point line. They are ninth in the country in opponent 2 point shooting, but 214th in opponent 3-point shooting. Elijah Thomas is a big reason for that. Clemson is 20th in the nation in block rate (Thomas is 13th).

But Clemson is not a strong offensive team. As mentioned, when the outside shots are dropping, Clemson can put up some points. But they don’t have a lot of diversity to their offensive game, and the Hoos generally punish one-dimensional offenses. The Tigers would likely have to nail a lot of contested threes in order to pull the upset.

Virginia and Clemson tip off at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN 2. Stay tuned to Streaking the Lawn for all of your ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament coverage.