As the first NCAA Tournament game for Rutgers is drawing near, I was fortunate to speak with Ryan Kantor of Shakin The Southland, SB Nation’s Clemson site to find out more about the Scarlet Knights’ first round opponent. With a sixth place finish in the ACC and several notable wins this season including against NCAA Tournament teams Alabama, Purdue and Maryland, there is no doubt the Tigers will make for a difficult game. Let’s tip things off here.
AB: Clemson had a great start to the season but comes into the NCAA Tournament having lost two of its last three, including a loss to a bad Miami team in the ACC Tournament. How would you assess the regular season and what are expectations for the NCAA Tournament?
RK: Clemson finished the regular season 16-6 (10-6) before a loss to Miami in their first ACC tournament game. Even before that loss, it didn’t feel like the Tigers were having the spectacular year they are. Make no mistake, Clemson has had very few seasons better than this one, but for whatever reason it lacks the exciting feel that Clemson’s 2017-18 season (in which they were a 5-seed) had.
Perhaps it is the lack of crowds that has taken some of the thrill away. Clemson has fortunately done an excellent job safely bringing limited crowds to home games, but the lack of a big crowd still makes the big wins feel less important. Clemson’s season has been put on pause twice due to COVID-19 in the program which has made for some weird scheduling adjustments. Maybe that’s to blame. I think the biggest thing may be the lack of exciting games. Clemson has played in just three games that were decided by three points or less. Their losses have been embarrassing blowouts and their wins have been defensive showcases in which the game is often decided before the final minutes.
Whatever the case, the Tigers are having a great season. While this was a “pay-off” year in which they returned most of their key talent, earning a 7-seed qualifies as surpassing expectations. Winning a game in the NCAA tournament feels like a must though as ending the season with losses to Miami and Rutgers would not feel like a “success” even if on paper it met all of the pre-season goals.
AB: This team shoots a lot of threes (24 per game) but have also lost three games when they shot 40% or better from behind the arc. How reliant is Clemson on the deep ball to be successful and how are they most effective in getting good looks along the perimeter?
RK: This is a great observation. Clemson actually only shoots a few percentage-points higher from three in wins than losses. That certainly makes a difference, but as mentioned, most of the games aren’t particularly close anyway. Where you see a big difference in Clemson’s wins vs. their losses is on defense.
In Clemson’s 16 wins, they’ve held their opponents under 64 points 12 times. Clemson has allowed over 64 points in all seven of their losses. Clemson must bring maximum effort in man-to-man defense to beat quality opponents. Luck also plays a role. Clemson allows a lot of three-point shots and if an opponent is hot it can go a long way in overcoming Clemson’s strong defense inside the arc.
AB: Aamir Simms has had a great career and is the best big man on the roster, but he tends to play on the perimeter a good amount of time. How much does Clemson look to attack the rim and what have been the biggest reasons for this team struggling from two-point range at times this season?
RK: Throughout the years, Clemson has found itself shooting a lot more three-pointers than you’d think is wise based on their 3P%. Their motion offense has a tendency to stall out and get mired in scoring draughts even on some of their best squads. This year is no different. The Tigers don’t have a player who can consistently win isolation situations or create their own shot with regularity. Sometimes the motion offense works like clockwork, but when it gets gummed up, the Tigers don’t have a guy who can take the ball at the top of the key and create.
AB: Clemson has been very strong on the defensive end. What makes them so effective and how do you expect them to defend Rutgers?
RK: Clemson plays tough man-to-man defense. PG Nick Honor is an excellent on-ball defender averaging 1.3 steals per game. His relentless defense can wear opposing guards down throughout the game. Clemson will use as many as 10 players in a game which allows them to keep the defensive pressure turned up and substitute liberally to keep players fresh.
While they lack a great shot blocker (Simms leads the Tigers with 0.7 per game), they’re great at making you work for every basket. The defense ranks 20th in non-steal turnovers percentage and makes opponents spend an average of 18.6 seconds on each possession. That’s the 4th longest in the entire county. Simply put, they make you earn it.
AB: Who is a player that has been an X-factor for Clemson or someone you think could be against Rutgers based on the matchups?
RK: Aamir Simms is clearly Clemson’s best all-around player, but the point guard duo of Nick Honor and Al-Amir Dawes (from New Jersey) are key. They have attempted 38% of Clemson’s 553 three-point attempts. Honor seems to be the go-to guy in game-winning possession situations and was the hero of the Georgia Tech game when he banked in a three-pointer for the win as time expired. He is a little bit of a chucker like George Costanza in Seinfeld, but he shoots .385 from three so we welcome it. If he is playing a great game, the Tigers are hard to beat. They say NCAA tournament games often come down to guard play and I could certainly see that being the case in this contest.
AB: What are the keys to beating Clemson?
RK: Rutgers is very good inside the arc but not great from three while Clemson is great at defending two-pointers but not so much the three ball. Rutgers also doesn’t play with a particularly quick tempo which plays into Clemson’s preferred style. Clemson was up on Miami early before the Hurricanes adjusted to more isolation sets that negated Clemson’s great team defense.
Rutgers has to keep up their excellent efficiency inside the arc against a defense that thrives onstopping that, find a player who can carry them in isolation situations, or knock down some three-pointers.
AB: How do you expect this game to go and which team do you expect to win?
RK: When I first saw the seeding and draw for Clemson I was elated. As I’ve looked into it more, I’ve grown less optimistic. KenPom only gives the Tigers a 45% chance to win while Nate Silver is even less optimistic at 42%. The Big Ten has been perhaps even stronger than the ACC this year and last year and the Scarlet Knights reached double-digits wins in the conference.
In the end, I still lean slightly towards Clemson. The Scarlet Knights haven’t beat a tournament team since Michigan State on January 28th. Most of their resume is heavily front-loaded and while Clemson isn’t riding a hot streak either, we’ve seen them beat North Carolina, Syracuse, and ACC Champion Georgia Tech all more recently than January 28th.
Thanks to Ryan for giving great insight on Clemson ahead of Friday’s matchup against Rutgers. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of the Clemson Tigers, visit Shakin The Southland. To read my answers to Ryan’s questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.