Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Meet the Tigers

Clemson has, for the most part, flown under the radar this year. That's what happens when you reach February 3 with a record of 18-2 and only one of those wins is against a top 25 team (Illinois, who was unranked at the time). The only time they've played opponents better than they are (Wake, UNC), they've lost by a combined 34 points. Fortunately for the Tigers, they only have two of those games left - end of the season at Wake Forest, and tonight against Duke. This team has 2006-2007 Virginia written all over it - that team tied for first in the ACC and picked up a 4 seed on the back of a very, very easy conference schedule, and being just good enough to win the games they should (which, when you think about it, is no mean feat). If Clemson can just take care of business against the teams below it in the conference, they'll be 26-4 (12-4) and staring at a 3 of 4 seed.

Like always under Oliver Purnell, Clemson makes liberal use of the full court press (I think it's a 1-2-1-1, but am not positive). Raymond Sykes has stepped into the roll James Mays played, running the point of that press and using a long, lanky frame (think Lance Thomas with a lot more hair) to be disruptive in the back court. As usual, Clemson's press generates a lot of turnovers - 24% of opponents' possessions in conference play, good for third in the league behind FSU and Duke. Also like always, Clemson's field goal defense is not great - once the press is broken, Clemson is in the bottom half of the league in preventing baskets. This year, the Tigers have also struggled as a defensive rebounding team, letting opponents grab nearly 40% of their misses.

On offense, Clemson's done a great job thus far avoiding the turnover. They lead the conference in lowest turnover percentage at 16.93%, and the end result in raw terms is that they commit 5 fewer turnovers a game than they create. That's essentially five free turns on offense every game, and since Clemson is a team that so far has been outshot by it's opponents, they're five very needed turns. On that shooting front, Clemson is 9th in efg% (.469) and 10th in PPWS, joining Georgia Tech and Maryland as the only teams in ACC play who don't get at least one point per weighted shot. Clemson has been particularly vulnerable inside, shooting a league-low .412 on their twos and getting blocked on a league-worst 10.86% of their shots. The free throw shooting, formerly the Tigers' Achilles heel, has been much improved this year. After two years in a row getting essentially no contribution from the free throw line, Clemson now picks up a respectable 19% of its points from the stripe and has hit 67.4% of its free throws (which is certainly not great, but a huge improvement after seasons in the 50s).

Clemson is led by senior wing KC Rivers and junior forward Trevor Booker. Rivers leads the team with a 125.47 offensive rating in just about 20% usage (all numbers ACC play only). He's been deadly from 3, hitting 17 of his 28 attempts, including 7 of 10 last week against Virginia Tech. He also has a freakishly low turnover percentage, coughing it up just 8.9% of the time. For a guy used as frequently as he is, that's very, very good. Booker has found the ACC to be a bit more of a struggle. He leads the team in minutes and is the focus of the offense inside, but has shot just 44% from 2 and hasn't been collecting offensive rebounds with the frequency he has in the past. Booker's offensive rating is just barely over 100, which is in the lower half of performers in league play.

Taking an increasingly bigger role in the offense is sophomore shooting guard Terrence Oglesby. If there's one thing you can count on tonight, it's that he will take many 3s. He averages almost 7 a game, and took 13 each against UNC and Georgia Tech. His shooting's been just ok - 34% from 3 and a subpar 36% from 2 - but like Rivers, he's been freakishly good at avoiding turnovers, so his offensive rating is a respectable 112.11. Of course, it's rather easy to avoid coughing the ball up when your role on offense consists largely of "catch, shoot, repeat." Oglesby is joined in the backcourt by Demontez Stitt, who has found the ACC no easier his second time around. Stitt has struggled with his shot, posting a .327 efg%, which is in the bottom 10 in the league, and is not at all a threat from outside. Unlike Rivers and Oglesby, he turns the ball over with some frequency, coughing it up 22% of the time he uses a possession. He is clearly the weakest link in the starting 5, and may be particularly vulnerable tonight against a Duke defense that has not made life easy on opposing point guards. Rounding out the starting five is Raymond Sykes, who is a voracious offensive rebounder (3rd in the league among qualifying players at 15.63%). However, he, like the rest of the Tigers, otherwise struggles with his inside game, shooting under 50% from 2 and turning it over with abundance - 2.5/game in just 20 minutes/game of playing time.

One area where Clemson is strong is the bench. They go 9 deep in every game, and have a well-distributed set of bench players - Andre Young to backup the point, Tanner Smith to play the 2/3, David Potter to play the 3/4, and Jerai Grant down low. Young has proven no steadier a hand than Stitt, turning it over on 29% of his possessions and posting a team low 85.96 offensive rating (wildly obvious observation - when your two point guards are your two worst offensive players, you're not going to have a highly effective offense). Tanner Smith takes good care of the ball and hits open shots from 3 (he won't really take a contested look), but does little else. David Potter is good for leaving 1s and 2s everywhere in the box score - he'll get one or two offensive and defensive rebounds, a couple assists, a couple steals, and a couple shots. He's also one of the Tigers' best on-ball defenders, and gets the most minutes off the bench. Finally, Jerai Grant has taken a big leap forward this year. He rebounds with the same tenacity of Sykes on the offensive end and is a presence inside on defense, blocking 7.4% of opponents' shots, best in the league.

Clemson's biggest test tonight will be making shots against the Duke defense. Only Andre Young hits at least 50% from 2 (and he's just 5-10) and 5 of the 9 guys in the rotation are below 40%. Duke has been the hardest team to score on from 2 so far this season, holding opponents to just 40.8%. This does not seem to bode well for Clemson. The turnover battle will be another key factor to watch - both teams are in the top 4 in both forcing turnovers and protecting the ball on their own end. Last season, the team with fewer turnovers won each game; we'll see if that trend can continue tonight.

Around the ACC

UNC's offense is very good. They've had back-to-back performances of 130 offensive ratings. Four of their starters have offensive ratings of 124 or better in conference play - they're 1st (Ellington), 2nd (Lawson), 4th (Hansbrough), and 6th (Green), and if you limit it to players who use at least 20% of possessions, they go 1-2-3-4. But yikes does this team not play defense. 5 conference opponents have topped a point per possession and the last two - NC State and Maryland, the 9th and 10th rated offenses in the conference - hit nearly 110 offensive ratings. Also, they're really no longer a deep team. With the announcement that Ginyard will take a medical hardship year and Graves will be suspended, suddenly the bench consists of Ed Davis, Larry Drew, and Bobby Frasor. Hard not to say "what if" about this season if you're a Carolina fan; losing Ginyard and Zeller for the year totally transformed this team from clear favorite for the title to one of a handful of very good teams that could win. But they're suddenly vulnerable to foul trouble and tired legs, because they lack the talent on the bench they were supposed to have in abundance.

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