Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Duke v Clemson Preview

It may be that the words "crucial ACC Showdown" have seldom, if ever, been written about a game between Duke and Clemson. Yet when the Tigers will be carrying an 18-2 record and a #17 national ranking into Cameron Indoor Stadium (Thursday, 7 PM, ESPN). Duke, meanwhile, is coming off a rejuvenating week, winning three ACC contests, albeit against three of the weaker teams in the conference. Duke will look to build its new-found offensive success and keep the heat up with the nation's best defense against a Clemson team eager to push the pace and force steals.

Clemson's first two months of its 2006-07 campaign featured domination of some smaller programs (Appalachian St, Wofford, Charleston Southern) in relative obscurity. But after opening ACC play with three straight victories, the newly ranked Tigers traveled to Maryland with the nations' only remaining unbeaten record. They did not leave with that unblemished record, falling 92-87 in a game that still features the worst defense Clemson has played thus far this season. Four days later the Tigers hosted North Carolina, and the results were less than inspiring. The Tar Heels ran up the pace and forced the worst offensive game of Clemson's season to leave with a 77-55 victory. Clemson bounced back with a solid win at Boston College, and will be looking for more ACC road blood in taking on the Blue Devils.

An outsider might look at the victories attained against lower competition, and the collapses against Maryland and UNC as evidence that the Tigers were outplaying their ability to begin the season. However, a closer look at the statistical trends in all six of Clemson's ACC contests reveals some areas that may trouble a suddenly hot Blue Devils squad. For instance, Clemson features two of the most productive players in college basketball on the offensive end: 6-3 junior guard Cliff Hammonds (11.1 ppg, 3.7 apg, 124.6 ORtg) and 6-5 sophomore swingman KC Rivers (14.3 ppg, 42% 3-pt, 124.8 ORtg). Even considering just ACC contests, Hammonds is second in the conference with a 2.88 A/TO ratio and is shooting 60% on 2-pt attempts, fourth in the conference. Rivers is also a strong ball handler (TO% of just 12.5) and spreads the offense with superior ability from long range. Down low, forwards James Mays (6-9, Jr) and Trevor Booker (6-7, Fr) grab a high percentage of offensive rebound opportunities, and as a team the Tigers recover 41% (13th in the nation).

Offensively, Clemson's weakness appears to be its inability to get to the free throw line, something they do on just 14.5%, which is dead last (336th) among all D-1 teams. Once there, the Tigers are just as bad, shooting 57.8% (331st in nation). Relying on their offensive rebounding and 2-pt field goal percentage may be difficult against Duke, however. The Blue Devils have grabbed 78% of all of their opponents' missed shots during ACC play, led by Dave McClure and Josh McRoberts. Duke is also second in the ACC in defending inside the arc, limiting opponents to just 44.1% on 2 point shots (Virginia is first at 44.0%). However, while Duke limited Wake Forest and NC State's above average 2-pt shooting ability, they struggled against a Georgia Tech team possessing a stronger overall offense. Clemson, like GT, does not take many long range shots, but have an advantage over the Yellow Jackets with Rivers' strong 3-pt shooting ability. There is a chance the game could proceed similarly to the Duke-GT game if Clemson can be strong from beyond the arc.

Defensively, the Tigers are also a top 25 team, and possess a superior ability to induce turnovers- especially steals. Led by Mays and Hamilton, Clemson generates steals on 15.5% of opponents' possessions, second in the nation, and they have actually exceeded this mark in ACC games. Add in Booker's strong blocking ability (2.1 bpg) and some solid defensive rebounding from Mays and the origins of Clemson's up-tempo pace are clear. Still, Clemson's defensive weaknesses are clear: limiting field goal percentage, especially from beyond the arc. Duke should hope for Jon Scheyer and Greg Paulus to build on last weeks' success in limiting turnovers and raining three pointers. Crisp passing and dribble-drive-dish strategies by McClure and Nelson should open up holes in Clemson's aggressive, steal-seeking defense.

While both Carolina and Maryland pushed the tempo the fastest Clemson had seen all season, the Tar Heels won with defense while the Terrapins won with offense. In addition, Clemson's close calls against Georgia Tech and Florida State were moderately paced and neither had extraordinary offensive or defensive efforts. Duke should therefore look to play within themselves rather than forcing an adaptation to the Clemson style. The Tigers do have multiple weapons which may prove costly to an often turnover-prone Blue Devil team, but if Duke continues it defensive domination and is able to slow the game to their level by limiting turnovers, Duke could roll in Cameron. Duke, 70-60.


Xenod said...

I predict that Duke will blow a 5-point lead with 6 seconds left, but win in regulation anyway.

Matt said...

Your clairvoyance is truly impressive, sir. If you do have this gift, then you should have known that the game would progress beyond 9:00 PM EST. So your gift should be more directly applied to being able to correctly operate a Digital Video Recorder. You might want to contact Red Cross about a credibility transplant.