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The Big Preview: Virginia and Clemson in a Top 20 Matchup

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 09 Virginia at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For just the second time this year, Virginia Basketball will face a ranked team. The first one didn’t go well, but there is a reason Gonzaga is ranked number one. As the season has progressed, the Hoos have looked better and better, notwithstanding the second half of Wednesday’s game against Notre Dame.

Clemson has also played just one ranked team, though their overall schedule is much stronger than Virginia’s. With OOC games against Alabama, Maryland, Purdue and Mississippi State, Clemson has fared better against better competition that Virginia. They are 9-1, with their only blemish a 6 point loss in Blacksburg in their ACC opener. They are coming off an OT win over NC State at home.

The Tigers use a similar formula to Virginia. This team is currently number-one in the nation in defense, according to KenPom. (The Hoos are 13th.) However, Clemson is 72nd in offense, while Virginia is 33rd. Clemson is also playing slow, though not quite as slowly as Virginia (nobody’s as slow as Virginia).

Like Tony Bennett, Clemson head coach Brad Brownell has played around with his rotations and lineup quite a bit. Ten different Tigers have started at least twice this year, with only senior forwards Amir Simms and Clyde Trapp starting all ten games. But unlike Virginia, Brownell still seems to be tinkering.

Simms is the best player on the team and one of the most under-appreciated in the ACC. He leads his team in scoring, rebounding and blocks. And he’s second in steals and assists.

So the Hokies don’t have any size. But that’s a nice move on the block and a tough shot over anybody. And Simms’ ability to make plays for others really makes this Clemson offense. He has upped his assist rate tremendously since early in his career and it’s taken another step up this year. Their offense last year ranked 155th, so 72nd this year is a big improvement.

One of the biggest differences this year for the Tigers is the addition of Nick Honor, a transfer from Fordham. He’s an outstanding shooter and can also run the offense pretty well. His ability from outside changes everything defenses do. Sophomore Alex Hemenway has started the past two games, and he also provides an outside threat, though he doesn’t do a whole lot else. Honor has also only started twice, but he’s fourth on the team in minutes.

Honor is a deadly shooter when he’s able to set his feet. Finding him in transition is key. Although Clemson plays slow, it’s more their defense that slows things down. They are willing to run and also run some press, looking to force turnovers and generate some easy buckets. Their half-court offense really isn’t very good, so easy buckets will be very big for them in this game.

One downside to having Honor getting PG minutes is that it slides starting PG Al-Amir Dawes to the wing. Along with 6’4” Clyde Trapp, that is a very small group of wings. Can Trapp keep 6’9” Trey Murphy from getting his jobs? Trapp struggled to stay with NC State’s Devon Daniels, giving up 18 points and 10 rebounds (although it wasn’t a particularly efficient outing, requiring 17 shots to reach those 18 points). Junior Hunter Tyson, a 6’8” wing, started the first two games but he’s missed the past five after suffering what has been described as a “mild head fracture”. That sounds bad. Can a head fracture be mild?

That puts Dawes in a mtch up with Beekman, which should be fun. Dawes has become a little more of a scorer this year because of Honor. He’s third on the team in scoring at just under 10 ppg, but he shoots far too many outside shots. He’s just a 32% three point shooter, but he’s taken almost two-thirds of his shots from outside. He’s best off the dribble.

Impressive move from Dawes, but is that really what NC State calls defense?

Next to Simms down low is 6’10” senior Jonathan Baehre. He transferred from UNC Asheville after the 2018 season, but has torn his ACL twice since arriving at Clemson. He’s a good defender inside and can shoot it a little bit (5/14 this year). He’ll get the first shot and slowing down Jay Huff. Simply put, Huff has been one of the best offensive players in the nation so far this year, shooting 44% from downtown and over 75% inside. Oh and he’s making 84% from the line. Huff is underappreciated this year, in part because of Sam Hauser’s presence.

Clemson ranks fifth in the nation in points allowed at 57.6, but they’ve allowed at least 65 in all four of their ACC games. They’ve also played faster in ACC games as they’ve looked for those easy buckets to bolster their half-court offense. Easier said than done to get those easy transition buckets against Virginia.

The Tigers are favored by a point or two, and the game should be close. If it comes down to a half-court game, Virginia has the advantage. They’ll have to knock down open shots, something they did very well against Notre Dame, but had not done the previous few games. Clemson will look to get Honor and Hemenway going from downtown, which would open things up on the inside for Simms.

Clemson is favored by a point or two and it should be a close game.