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NCAA Tournament Game Preview: No. 10 Rutgers vs. No. 7 Clemson

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Includes how to watch, stats, pregame thoughts from both teams and keys to victory.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 04 Minnesota at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2021 NCAA Tournament First Round

No. 10 Rutgers (15-11) vs. No. 7 seed Clemson (16-7)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana

Fan Capacity: Bankers Life: 2,500 and 3,800 fans, 13-19% cap

Tip-off: Friday, March 19 at 9:20 p.m. ET

TV: TBS - Spero Dedes, Brandon Haywood and Lauren Shehadi

Radio: Live Listen - Rutgers Sports Properties Radio Network - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM/Sirius 137/XM 207 - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; Westwood One - Kevin Kugler & Brian O’Connell; WRSU 88.7 FM - Chris Tsakonas & Jake Schmied

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers is 34, which is three spots worse since an 22 point loss against Illinois last Friday. Clemson is 42, which is three spots worse since a 3 point loss to Miami last Wednesday.

Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 108.7 (74th) Defense 90.6 (17th); Clemson - Offense 107.1 (97th) Defense 90.6 (19th)

KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 63 Clemson 61. Rutgers is given a 54% chance to win.

OTB Guide to KenPom

Vegas Line: Rutgers -2

Series History: Clemson leads the all-time series 2-1 including a 76-58 victory on November 26, 2015 and a 78-69 in the 1999 NIT. Rutgers earned its first ever win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge by beating Clemson on the road 69-64 on December 1, 2014.

Clemson SB Nation Site: Shakin The Southland

Key Contributors

Clemson - 6’9” senior Aamir Simms (13.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 54.3% FG, 40.7% 3-pt FG; 82.5% FT); 6’2” sophomore Al-Amir Dawes (9.0 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 42.4% FG, 38.7% 3-pt FG, 74.2% FT); 6’2” redshirt sophomore Nick Honor (8.4 points, 2.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 rebounds, 40.5% FG, 38.5% 3-pt FG, 73.9% FT); 6’8” junior Hunter Tyson (7.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 47.3% FG, 41.7% 3-pt FG, 77.1% FT); 6’4” senior Clyde Trapp (7.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 40.3% FG, 34.5% 3-pt FG, 58.3% FT); 6’4” sophomore Alex Hemenway (4.7 points, 1.3 rebounds, 42.2% FG, 39.0% 3-pt FG, 88.9% FT); 6’10” senior Jonathan Baehre (4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 39.8% FG, 27.6% 3-pt FG, 85.2% FT)

Rutgers - 6’6” junior Ron Harper Jr. (15.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 45.6% FG, 32.1% 3-pt FG, 73.2% FT); 6’2” senior Jacob Young (14.4 points, 3.5 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 46.9% FG, 36.0% 3-pt FG, 72.6% FT); 6’4” Geo Baker (10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 40.3% FG, 30.6% 3-pt FG, 76.9% FT); 6’4” junior Montez Mathis (8.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 39.0% FG, 29.0 % 3-pt FG, 56.3% FT); 6’10” redshirt junior Myles Johnson (8.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.1 steals, 63.8% FG, 43.1% FT); 6’6” sophomore Paul Mulcahy (5.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 46.1% FG, 36.5% 3-pt FG, 67.5% FT); 6’7” junior Caleb McConnell (5.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 29.3% FG, 20.9% 3-pt FG%, 77.8% FT ); 6’11” Cliff Omoruyi (4.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 65.4% FG, 42.4% FT)

About Clemson

Clemson is having a similar season to Rutgers in that they may have played their best basketball in December. Their highest ranked wins came before the calendar turned to 2021, but they are impressive victories that included high seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament in Alabama (2 seed), Purdue (4 seed) and Florida State (4 seed). However, they struggled in January with losing four out of five games. They recovered to go on a five game winning streak, but head into the tournament losing two of its last three.

Clemson averages 65.3 points per game and allows 62.0 points per contest. As a team, they are shooting 42.8% from the field, 34.6% from three-point range and 76.5% from the free throw line.

In regard to ACC play, the Tigers finished 12th out of 15 teams in offensive efficiency and 6th out of 15th in defensive efficiency. Offensively, they were 3rd in free throw shooting percentage, but were 13th in free throw rate and 14th in tempo. Defensively, the Tigers were 4th in opponent offensive rebounding percentage and 6th in turnover rate and two-point field goal percentage defense, but are 10th in free throw rate, 12th in steal rate and 13th in block rate.

The Tigers are 5-7 when they score any less than that. They play one of the slowest paces in college basketball (338th) in part due to their defense, so they need to be efficient on offense if they want reach that 66 point threshold. Clemson does shoot a ton of threes, averaging 24 attempts per game. The Tigers can really light it up from deep at times, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beatable. They just made 12 of 23 attempts in an upset loss to a bad Miami team (10-17) in the second round of the ACC Tournament. They were only 11 of 26 from inside the arc and took just 6 free throws. They aren’t very physical and our a team that is happy to shoot primary from behind the arc.

Clemson has multiple shooters, but not a strong inside presence other than its best player, Aamir Simms, who was just named Second Team All-ACC last week. He was the sixth man as a freshman on the team that went to the Sweet 16. He became the seventh player ever in his league to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists, which he did for a second straight season. He also has a high offensive rebounding rate (166th), block rate (327th) and is a efficient shooter from all over the court.

Newark native Al-Amir Dawes was the 5th highest rated prospect in New Jersey for the loaded 2019 recruiting class that include Scottie Lewis (Florida), Bryan Antoine (Villanova), Khalil Whitney (Kentucky), Khalif Battle (Butler), Zach Freemantle (Xavier), and Paul Mulcahy (Rutgers). He is a very good three-point shooter but has run hot and cold down the stretch this season.

Nick Honor is the former Fordham guard who destroyed Rutgers in Rose Hill on December 8, 2018 when he scored 30 points on 10 of 17 shooting, including 5 of 7 from three. He is the third leading scorer on Clemson and has a high assist rate, low turnover rate and high steal rate. Paging Jacob Young.

Another notable tidbit is that the ACC was not good this year. They finished fifth in the conference efficiency ratings of KenPom, more than six points below the Big Ten, which finished with the highest efficiency in the history of KenPom.

The Tigers are not big or physical and aren’t a great rebounding team. They do play tough defense and can look to run off of turnovers but they are susceptible to the three and giving up second chance points.

Clemson finished the NET rankings at no. 41.

Check out our Q&A with Shakin The Southland to find out more about Clemson basketball ahead of Friday’s game.

Rutgers Notes

Rutgers is averaging 70.0 points per game and they are allowing 68.2 points per contest. Overall, the Scarlet Knights are shooting 45.1% from the floor, 31.1%from three-point range and 63.2% from the foul line. In Big Ten play, they finished 9th in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency.

Offensively, RU was 4th in turnover rate and 7th in two-point shooting percentage, but are only 11th in three-point shooting percentage, 12th in free throw rate and 13th in free throw shooting percentage. Their tempo rate is 8th in league play.

Defensively, Rutgers has the best steal rate and block rate, as well as 2nd in turnover rate and 5th in both effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage, as well as 6th in three-point field goal percentage. However, they are 11th in opponent free throw rate and just 13th in opponent offensive rebounding rate.

Rutgers’ strength of schedule is ranked 7th nationally per KenPom. They won double digit conference games in back to back seasons for the first time ever since joining the Big Ten and first time overall since the 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 seasons.

Rutgers finished in the NET rankings at no. 38.

Pregame Quotes

Brad Brownell

On Rutgers

“It is a little bit exciting to play somebody different. I’ve seen Rutgers bits and pieces watching on the Big Ten Network. Experienced guys. A team that’s gonna be very hungry, very physical, very good defensively.”

“Geo Baker is a really good player. They got a great big man (Myles Johnson) inside with great hands, great shot blocker. He’s got a tremendous wingspan and presence around the basket area.”

“(Rutgers head coach) Steve (Pikiell) has done an unbelievable job there. They were going to the tournament last year. They’ve got guys that are used to winning and they’re gonna be juiced because they didn’t get to go last year and they haven’t been in a while so this is a big moment for them.”

On Clemson guard Al-Amir Dawes, who played at the Patrick School in New Jersey

“I don’t know how hard they recruited him. He’ll be excited about the game, obviously. He’ll be excited about playing somebody that is his home state’s school.”

Aamir Simms

On playing a Big Ten team

“We play against a Big Ten team every year. We kind of know what to expect. Most teams in the same conference are going to play very similarly. We know from playing Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota, or Ohio State in my four years that it’s gonna be a physical game. It’s about x’s and o’s and who is gonna value the ball more. That’s what it’s gonna come down to.”

Steve Pikiell

On being at the NCAA Tournament

“It’s been a week of excitement and also a week to think back on the year that we had. Thankful to a lot of people that have kept us safe and healthy. The NCAA has done a really good job since Selection Sunday. We got here to the hotel and it was very organized. Throughout the course of the week, we’re trying to settle in and trying to get our bodies and minds right to play a really good Clemson basketball team.”

On being in the bubble

“We are very thankful that the NCAA was able to put this together. Last year was just a tough ending to season for all student-athletes for everyone who would have gotten a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s not a way you want to end your season. Especially after having a really good one. This is the alternative. We are in a bubble. We are safe. We are able to practice. The facility is adjacent to the hotel. We are able to go and lift weights, watch film and do the things that we need to do to prepare.”

On how Rutgers has avoided program issues with COVID-19

“In order to stay Covid free, you gotta be unselfish and you have to sacrifice,” Pikiell said. “Every Thursday, Friday I used to tell our guys ‘Covid is undefeated on the weekends so you guys gotta stay in this weekend’ and they sacrificed to do that.”

On first impressions of Clemson

“I devoured a lot of tape and I have a tremendous amount of respect for their program. (Head coach) Brad Brownell has done a great job there and I have a lot of respect for them,” Pikiell said. “The more I watch tape the more I really like their program and like their system a great deal. We’ll have plenty of challenges but our guys have been good.

On Clemson playing at a slow pace

“They will run too. I watched all the film. They don’t mind grinding the game out. They win in a lot of different ways. They are really good in transition too. I think they have a lot of skilled players and they shoot a lot of threes. When they’re not in transition, they’re going to run some clock. They do a really good job of spacing you out and shooting the ball. But the way their defense plays into the pace of the game. You can’t score easily against them and that slows the game down. It’s really not so much the pace that they want to play. They get up and down when they can. Sometimes those stats are a little misleading to generate true thoughts on who they are. It’s hard to score on this team and that slows down the pace of the game.

On defending Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor

“Anytime you get in a tournament like this, there are really good guards. They can really shoot the basketball. They are impressive defensively too. They can really hawk the ball and do a great job with ball pressure. They’re good players who can shoot it or go by you. They have a lot of guys on the perimeter who can cause problems. They can all shoot and they play a lot of guys to try and wear you down. Clemson’s guards are as good as any.”

On how Rutgers needs to play

“We’re gritty, tough. We’ve been through a lot. I want us to play locked in but I want us to have fun. When we’re having fun and we’re flying around, we’re a hard team to beat. I would say resilient would be a good thing.”

Ron Harper Jr.

On whether having played at Lucas Oil Stadium last week and staying in Indianapolis for a week helps Rutgers

“Definitely. An observation that me and the guys just picked up as soon as we walked on the court for the Big Ten Tournament, the lights are just brighter. the lights are beaming down harder than they usually do in any other arena. I’m sure we will feel the same way on Friday being that its the NCAA Tournament. Once we step between those lines its business time and it’s go time so we have to just prepare ourselves for what’s to come.”

On the importance of his defense and rebounding

“I definitely have to set the tone on the defensive end and on the glass. Coach Pikiell gave me my stats when I get 7 rebounds or more and 10 rebounds or more this team is really successful.” (Note: Rutgers is 9-1 when he grabs at least 7 rebounds and 4-0 when he gets 10 or more boards.)

The matchup with Aamir Simms

“Aamir Simms is definitely a matchup problem. He is a center that can get a rebound and push it fullcourt. He can catch it along the perimeter. He can post up. He has a really versatile game. He is different than the modern day center we are used to facing in the Big Ten. It will be an entertaining matchup seeing him on Friday.”

On getting to the NCAA Tournament

“It’s really satisfying to get here. I say that based on what happened last year. Last year the alternative to March Madness with Covid was to not have a tournament so everyone on the team is real grateful that we get the opportunity to be here in the bubble. It is a very extraordinary situation.”

On staying COVID-19 free this season

“Sacrifice is what this team stands on. We all sacrifice for each other. We stay to ourselves, we don’t go out on weekends to try and not bring covid into the practice facility. Like coach Pikiell said, we haven’t had one pause all year and that’s just a credit to the guys.”

On how Rutgers needs to play to win

“We have to play connected and play with each other. When we’re connected and when we play together I feel like we can play with anybody in the country. When we’re making that extra pass or when we’re having each other’s back on defense whether it’s a rotation or rotating to get a rebound. I feel like if we play for each other, play for the dude with the same jersey on, we’re gonna be in great shape.”

On what this opportunity means for the program

“That was our goal and that was our mission from day one and we all got recruited here to win. We got recruited here to go to the NCAA Tournament, to break streaks, to set records and we’re doing just that. We’re doing it on a daily basis and Friday we get the opportunity to do it all over again.”

On the reputation of Rutgers when they recruited him

“I took it on the chest,” Harper said. “I used it as fuel to the fire. I always told people I came to Rutgers to win. I remember going on away games my senior year (of high school) I would get the ‘Rutgers sucks’ chants and all that nonsense. Winning games and helping change the program around, that really feels good.”

Keys To Victory

It will be a full week since Rutgers had last played in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament when they step onto the hardwood of Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday night for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years. Clemson will not have played in nine days. Both teams had disappointing results in their respective last games. However, Rutgers lost by 22 points to no. 1 seed in this Midwest region in Illinois, while the Tigers suffered its worst loss of the season to a bad Miami (Fl) team. Whether recent results develop into any real trend remains to be seen. It’s really a question of which team shows up for both sides.

Clemson is an ideal opponent for Rutgers in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament based on its seeding and potential other matchups. However, this game will not be easy and we all know that if the Scarlet Knights don’t play to their potential, they are vulnerable to any opponent. At first glance, this is a winnable game that will hinge on Rutgers’ ability to defend, force turnovers and rebound, while taking care of the basketball, attacking the rim and getting to the foul line to drive up the free throw margin. Generating good looks from three and knocking even just a few down could be enough to win this game. Rutgers doesn’t have to shoot lights out to win, but they need to share the basketball and play smart on offense.

While this team has never been to the NCAA Tournament, its a veteran group who have been through a lot. In addition, Jacob Young actually played in this event three years ago as a sophomore at Texas. He played 40 minutes and scored 8 points in an overtime loss to Nevada, so that experience could benefit him and this team in some way. He really needs to play under control and take care of the basketball. If he looks to be a distributor as well as a scorer in this game, that will be a positive for this team.

Feeding Myles Johnson early and often will set the tone and establish things in the low post. Johnson needs to avoid catching the basketball at the top of the key and really dig in. If Simms does cover him, he needs to back him in and force him to guard him which could lead to drawing fouls. The more Johnson can impose his will in this game, the better off Rutgers will be. He also has to stay out of foul trouble and if he can stay on the court close to 30 minutes, it will be a good sign for RU.

That being said the Scarlet Knights can’t expect to execute in the halfcourt at a high enough efficiency to win that way alone against a defense as good as Clemson’s. They need transition buckets, second chance points and free throws are ways they need to generate offense against a stingy defense that likes to pressure the ball like Clemson. The backcourt of the Scarlet Knights have a size advantage and need to use that by shooting over the defense and muscling their way into the paint for better looks at the basket.

Rutgers must defend well in this game and force turnovers to create transition scoring opportunities. They need to be locked in but not overly aggressive to avoid fouling.

A significant statistical difference is that Clemson is averaging 15.7 fouls called per game against them, which ranks 86th nationally. Rutgers is averaging 17.7 fouls called per game, which ranks just 273rd nationally. Two fouls might not seem like much, but in a matchup as tight as this one appears to be on paper, every free throw matters. RU is 9-0 this season when they shoot more free throws than their opponent.

Closing out on shooters behind the arc is something Rutgers must do. While the thought might be to shut down Simms, I actually think keeping Dawes and Honor contained and prevent them from getting comfortable is really the key. If those two guys get hot from three, it could spell trouble. Simms is a matchup problem no doubt, but with Young, Montez Mathis and Geo Baker, RU has a size advantage over those guards and have a chance to keep them off balance. Forcing Clemson into a bad shooting night will be too much for them to overcome.

Rutgers is 12-1 this season when leading at halftime, while Clemson is 11-1. The Scarlet Knights have had a few slow starts of late and while it wouldn’t be catastrophic if it happened again on Friday night, the more they can establish the game plan early and seize control. Shooting threes early without much ball movement or dribble penetration is a recipe of disaster.

Another key stat to note is that Clemson is a perfect 11-0 when it scores at least 66 points. Rutgers is 6-0 when holding opponent is under 60 points and 10-1 when holding them under 66 points. That’s the magic number.

How this game unfolds down the stretch will probably be dictated at the foul line. Clemson is excellent form the charity stripe and Rutgers cannot afford to get them into the bonus too early in either half, but especially down the stretch of this game.

Ron Harper Jr. is the guy Rutgers needs to be a drought killer by attacking the rim and getting to the line. He’ll have a chance to pop out to the perimeter and take some threes, but his willingness to drive in traffic and crash the boards is a huge priority for this team.

Geo Baker needs to play like it could be his last game. He will look to play wel after having his profile elevated this week for fighting for player rights. A sense of urgency can only help him be assertive and be a major factor in this game. Geo is bigger than the guards who will defend him so his mid-range jumper should be a weapon in this game.

An x-factor in this game could be Caleb McConnell due to his versatility in defending multiple players in this game and the fact that he is due offensively.

In addition, RU is 11-1 when winning the rebounding margin, while Clemson is 8-1. It’s no surprise that when the Scarlet Knights are playing together and with fire they battle for every missed shot on the glass. That’s the team that needs to take the court on Friday and holding the Tigers to one shot possessions off of misses is crucial to the outcome.

In a game as important as this, the leaders of this team must elevate their teammates by coming out strong and setting the tone. Simply put, Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson and Jacob Young need to be focused on the task at hand and play well in this game. Closing out this game in what could come down to the last few possessions is a moment this veteran group should be able to handle. Maintaining their composure and not letting the moment get too big and slip away in the process is paramount. Absorb runs as body blows and punch back harder down the stretch.

Appropriate Music Selection

For this first round game in the NCAA Tournament, I selected “Alive” by Pearl Jam. A repeat of the Big Ten Tournament but a different version each time. The whole objective of this game and every game in postseason play is to keep the season alive. This live version is from 1991, the same year that Rutgers last played in the NCAA Tournament.

It is not hyperbole to say this is the most important Rutgers basketball game of the last 30 years. For a program that is breaking a three decade tournament drought and last won a game in the big dance was 1983, Friday night is a huge opportunity for this team. Win and this season is a major success with history having been made. Lose and despite this group’s legacy already secure with making March Madness, the season would end in disappointment even based on their own expectations.

This team is too talented to go one and done. They’ve been through too much. They’ve worked too hard. This game is their chance to fulfill expectations and prove to the country that Rutgers basketball is for real. Now is the time and I believe this team can meet the moment in front of them.