Off to a 9-2 start, the Clemson men’s basketball team heads to Columbia tonight to take on 22nd-ranked South Carolina. Aside from the bragging rights at stake in any rivalry game, both teams can look at this as a win to tack near the top of a postseason résumé. The Gamecocks sit at 22nd in the most current RPI rankings, while the Tigers are in 72nd following the weakest portion of their schedule.
Here are three things to watch in tonight’s game:
- The Gamecocks have been really good on defense this season.
Not too many teams have showcased the kind of consistently bothersome defense Frank Martin’s defense has managed to put forth so far in 2016. The Gamecocks rank second in the country in effective field goal defense and inside the top ten against both two-pointers and three-pointers.
South Carolina likes to get out into passing lanes and either get steals or slow the flow of the opposition’s offense. Sophomore PJ Dozier leads the charge in this regard, averaging an SEC-best 2.4 steals per game. More often than not, the pressure leads to either a rushed set or a forced isolation late in the shot clock—if a turnover doesn’t happen first. The Gamecocks rank 11th in the country in points per possession allowed (0.915) and second in opponents’ assist rate.
Clemson does seem to have some strengths that could play well against the Gamecocks. Sidy Djitte is one of the top offensive rebounders in the country, and there will be second-chance opportunities for the Tigers. However, the Gamecocks have rim-protecting pieces to counter, especially 6-9 sophomore Chris Silva.
Otherwise, while South Carolina turns opponents over at the 11th-highest rate in the nation, Clemson also protects the ball at the 11th-highest rate in the nation. The turnover battle looks to be a strength-on-strength affair, and if Clemson can get shots up at the end of the clock on its possessions, it should be able to score enough points to be in a good spot.
- South Carolina’s best player is out. Meanwhile, Clemson’s full rotation is available.
This is the biggest storyline in the game. Sindarius Thornwell is the Gamecocks’ unquestioned best player, and he will be unavailable due to some off-court issues. That’s 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists (all team bests) that Martin’s squad will be missing.
It isn’t the first game the 6-5 senior Thornwell has missed. In fact, it’s his fourth, and the Gamecocks have gone 2-1 without him in the first three. Dozier is the logical next man up, and he has delivered in Thornwell’s absence. He has reached or surpassed the 20-point threshold in each of the past three games.
The X-factor offensively may be Duane Notice. The 6-2 senior played well in the Gamecocks’ wins over FIU and South Florida, but he was just 1-10 from the floor in a loss at Seton Hall. If the Tigers can contain him, the Gamecocks will have to look elsewhere for secondary offense. Quietly, Clemson ranks eighth in the country in turnover rate, so if South Carolina is indecisive or lacks precision, transition opportunities could appear.
On the flip side, Elijah Thomas made his much-anticipated debut on Sunday against Alabama. His presence in the rotation, coupled with growing confidence from Shelton Mitchell since his return from a season-opening injury, gives Brad Brownell all of his weapons. Martin doesn’t have that luxury.
- Even on the road, Clemson can win a free throw shooting contest.
The Tigers have been money from the line this season, making 75.3 percent of their foul shots. Even better than that, there really isn’t a bad free throw shooter on the entire team. Among regular rotation players, Sidy Djitte is the worst from the line, and he makes 70 percent.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks look like a decent free throw shooting squad, coming in at 69.9 percent for the season. However, the suspended Thornwell was far and away the most proficient, hitting 87.5 percent of his attempts. He was also a high-volume free throw shooter, so his absence is a big deal in this regard.
Over the past three games, the Gamecocks have hit no better than 65 percent and are averaging about 63 percent as a team. Plus, Clemson simply doesn’t foul this season. The Tigers lead the nation averaging a mere 13.9 fouls per game. It may actually be a good idea for Clemson to be more aggressive and send this team to the line, but I doubt Brownell’s defense will change its persona to fit an opponent.