Rutgers and Clemson enter Friday’s contest almost mirror images of each other. Both played its best basketball in December, finished in sixth place in their respective power conferences, are top 20 defensive teams nationally and have tendencies to struggle on the offensive end.
While both teams need its star players to perform well in order to win, the outcome of games against evenly matched teams in the NCAA Tournament often times come down to a key role player ending up being the difference between winning and losing.
The x-factor for Rutgers against Clemson could very well be Caleb McConnell. The 6’7” junior missed the first 8 games due to a back injury that he was originally supposed to sit out the entire season with. He battled back and has been a valuable part of head coach Steve Pikiell’s 8 man rotation.
While he hasn’t been as strong on the offensive end this season, he remains the quintessential glue guy for this team. Based on matchups, McConnell could have a major impact on Friday night.
In the past six games, he has scored just 13 points total on 5 of 24 shooting. However, he continues to play hard on the defensive end and has grabbed 20 rebounds and swiped 8 steals during that stretch. Based on the matchups against Clemson, McConnell could be in for a breakout game.
Defense has been his calling card and he will likely defend two key players for Clemson.
6’8” junior guard Hunter Tyson is shooting 41.7% from three-point range this season and the Tigers are 5-1 when he scores in double digits. The past two games he has scored a season high 16 points and is shooting a combined 10 of 14 from the floor and 6 of 7 from behind the arc. Its fair to say Tyson could end being Clemson’s x-factor as well based on his ability to get hot from deep and recent scoring surge. McConnell’s ability to guard the perimeter with ball pressure and closing out on shooters could make it a long night for Tyson.
In addition, I expect McConnell to be the secondary defender on All-ACC player Aamir Simms. Pikiell loves to take away the top player of an opponent by mixing different defenders throughout the game. While Ron Harper Jr. will likely matchup with Simms at the start, I’d be surprised if McConnell didn’t pick him up at times.
The 6’9” senior was the sixth man on Clemson’s 2018 Sweet Sixteen team and is one of just seven players in ACC history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists in the same season. He has now done that the past two seasons. While Simms has a couple of inches and 50 pounds on McConnell, his ability to defend bigger players and hold his ground is proven. He took on Indiana All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, Northwestern’s Pete Nance, Michigan’s Isaiah Livers just to name a few, while also shutting down Marcus Carr down the stretch in the first win over Minnesota. McConnell’s reach with his arms and toughness will be an asset against Simms, who does like to play more on the perimeter than a player his size typically does.
Offensively, McConnell has struggled of late but his versatility and size could be a problem with Clemson. I think Tyson is the only Tigers player that has the size and quickness to to defend him. If a smaller player picks him up, I think it plays to his advantage even more so. If McConnell shows a willingness to attack the rim, he could profit in this game. His confidence on the offensive end seems to have waned, but Clemson is soft in the paint and McConnell has the ability to hit mid-range jumpers. Getting to the foul line is a priority in this game and he can produce from the charity stripe as well.
An active McConnell on both ends of the floor will give Rutgers a better chance of winning. After getting ejected in the loss against Illinois for a more than a questionable flagrant 2-call which limited him to only 11 minutes played, McConnell is the type of player to respond well the next game. His mental toughness and willingness to do the little things that lead to winning is immeasurable. Add in the fact that I think he will be a matchup problem for Clemson on both ends and that he is due offensively, it could be a big night for him. Glue guys wins games for teams in March and that makes McConnell the x-factor in this game for Rutgers.