After easing past Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon, the Blue Devils look for their second straight home win to begin the ACC season as they host the Clemson Tigers on Tuesday night at 7 PM. While Ryan Kelly's hot shooting continued against Wake, and Quinn Cook tallied 14 assists, the team as a whole was not overwhelming against the outmanned Deacons. Sure, any time you get a 16 point win in a conference game you'll take it, but it was not a dominant performance at either end of the floor. And although Clemson is unlikely to challenge for a conference championship this year, they are definitely a step up in class from Wake Forest. And because of the type of game that Clemson plays and the physicality of their best players, the Blue Devils will have to, to quote Kobe Bryant, put their big boy pants on.
Duke leads the all-time series against Clemson 104-29, and has won 56 of the 60 games played in Cameron. The Tigers have not won in Durham since 1995.
This is the Tigers' third campaign under Brad Brownell, having gone to the tournament in his first season and missing out last year, as they went only 16-14 overall. They won five of their last six regular season games, but it wasn't enough to overcome two bad three-game losing streaks in the conference and a first round ACC Tournament loss to FSU.
Although this year's squad has the potential to beat good teams, they haven't done it so far this season. They're 8-5 overall, and none of the wins have come against top flight competition. Only one of their wins is over a BCS conference team, and that was a 9-point decision over a very bad South Carolina team, albeit on the road. The other seven wins: Presbyterian, Furman, UTEP, Marist, Florida A&M, South Carolina State, and the Citadel. The highest rated of those, per KenPom, is UTEP at #125. This is not the stuff of which solid RPI's are made. The five losses have come at the hands of Gonzaga by 8 in a Thanksgiving tournament -- that's not a bad loss -- Purdue, Arizona at home by 12 in a game they led by 6 midway through the second half, an awful 23 point drubbing by Coastal Carolina (#217 in KenPom), and then the 5 point loss last weekend to Florida State in the ACC opener. The Tigers currently sit at #83 in KenPom. Notable teams in that area include Santa Clara at 76, Harvard at 79, and Purdue at 85.
The Tigers showed some real fight in the FSU game on Saturday. Clemson was down 16 early in the second half, but battled back and cut it to three in the final minute, and had the ball. But it was not to be. It was the opposite of their effort against Arizona in early December, where the Tigers let the Wildcats go on a 20-2 run down the stretch to take over, abetted by a series of turnovers and clanged jump shots by Clemson. So maybe they're making progress.
As expected, senior big men Devin Booker and Milton Jennings have been the Tigers' best players. The 6'8" 250 pound Booker is a bruiser; he is leading the team both in scoring (a career-high11.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 ppg), and is shooting just shy of 60% from the field. Sometimes the best strategy against Booker when he gains an advantage down low is to simply foul him, as he is shooting a woeful 50% from the free throw line. Although it's worth noting that Booker's two worst games of the year have come against Clemson's strongest opponents -- Gonzaga and Arizona -- the big guy was solid against the rugged FSU defense on Saturday, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
The erratic and emotional Jennings, 6'9" and 225 pounds, was suspended for two games earlier this year for a drug arrest -- his third suspension in 13 months -- and is "on thin ice" with Brownell, but has come back pretty strong, averaging 10 points and 5 boards. Some may remember that Jennings was a McDonalds All-American coming out of high school, and while he has had his highs -- no pun intended -- he has not been the consistent force over his four years that he could've, and perhaps should've been for Clemson. K.J. McDaniels has moved into the starting lineup this year at forward as well, and the 6'6" sophomore is averaging 11 ppg but also gives the Tigers 4.6 boards, plus a steal and almost two blocks a game.
Rod Hall starts in the backcourt. The solidly built soph is only scoring about 6.5 ppg, but he does shoot 47% and dishes about four assists per night. His assist to turnover ratio is above 2.5 to 1 -- that's very good. 5'11" freshman Jordan Roper has started much of the year alongside Hall, with 6'4" soph Damarcus Harrison operating as a scoring supersub off the bench, though in the FSU game Harrison got the start instead.
Freshman guard Adonis Filer has had some pretty solid games in the first half of his first college season, including a 21 point outing on perfect 7 of 7 shooting on New Year's Day against The Citadel. 6'7" soph Bernard Sullivan has had his moments as well, but almost always against weaker opposition. The 230 pounder is the only big guy getting any significant burn off the Tiger bench, but he only got four minutes against Gonzaga, a goose-egg against Arizona, and three minutes against FSU.
Clemson has really struggled shooting the ball against the better teams on its schedule. They shot 31% against Gonzaga, 40% against Purdue, 38% against Arizona, and 39% against Florida State. In most of those games, the only guy who could hit the broad side of a barn was Booker, and he hasn't been enough to carry his team to victory. The team just doesn't score enough, averaging only 66 points per game. They are also a poor rebounding team overall.
This is not a formula for success against a team like Duke. In last year's only meeting between the teams, Booker was tough inside, scoring 12 and grabbing 13 rebounds. Jennings scored 16. But nobody else could hit much of anything. Clemson shot under 40% as a team, only scored 66 in total, and lost by 7 in Littlejohn. Andre Dawkins starred for Duke, nailing 5 three-pointers en route to a game-high 24 points, and Miles Plumlee bagged 14 rebounds.
Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are just the sort of defenders to give problems to Booker and Jennings. Plumlee and Kelly are both long, and can drape their long arms around the shorter, though burlier, Booker, and they both can stay with Jennings as well, and force both to try to play through them. None of Clemson's perimeter guys have shown the ability to consistently make teams pay for leaving them open, especially the better teams they've played, which usually involve quicker and rangier defenders.
At the other end of the floor, one problem Clemson is going to have is that they are short on the perimeter. Duke fans of the 2011-12 team may recall that feeling. Hall and Roper are 6'1" and 5'11" respectively. Rasheed Sulaimon should be able to drive and shoot over the top of them, and both of those Clemson defenders are going to have a hard time keeping a hand in Seth Curry's face when he curls around those Kelly and Plumlee screens like he loves to do.
I would expect Clemson to play Duke physically, not only because the strategy has messed with Duke's mojo a bit in the last stretch of games, but also because that's the way Clemson always plays. They're tough, and they're not afraid to mix it up. They may sense that is also their best chance to stay with the Devils, maybe get Mason in foul trouble (or Kelly, as he did against Wake Forest) and then they'd have a shot. What would be better would be to see Mason and Ryan -- and Marshall Plumlee too, if he gets the chance -- play good position defense, get their arms up in the air, and then turn around, stick their butts into the Clemson players they're guarding, and just box them out, for crying out loud. Booker and Jennings will get frustrated and it will be they who end up in foul trouble. If that happens, turn out the lights, the party's over.