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NIT Preview: Clemson vs. Oakland

Clemson opens up play in the NIT at home against Oakland tonight at 8 p.m. Oakland isn’t exactly the kind of team people set their DVRs to watch, so in an effort to provide context, here are three noteworthy items to consider prior to tonight’s game:

The Golden Grizzlies won the Horizon League in the regular season.

This isn’t a negligible accomplishment. The Horizon was competitive this season, with Northern Kentucky earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament field as the fourth seed in the conference tournament. There were two teams from the league included in the NIT field. Valparaiso—arguably the best team in the conference—joined Oakland as an at-large selection.

A first-round exit in the conference tournament doomed the Golden Grizzlies to this fate, but they are no slouch. They won a tiebreaker with the Crusaders by sweeping the regular season meetings with them. In addition to those two victories, Oakland finished 3-2 this season against teams in the NCAA Tournament field, sweeping Northern Kentucky and defeating UC Davis on a neutral floor. Perhaps its best win came at home against Georgia on December 23, and it lost close to Mountain West champ Nevada and at Michigan State by a dozen points.

Bottom line: This 24-win team is no slouch.

Oakland will try to run and gun.

The Golden Grizzlies push the pace on both ends of the floor. They rank among the top 30 in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo stat. The offensive philosophy that head coach Greg Kampe employs can, at times, resemble the NBA. They rely on guards to make quick decisions and take advantage of mismatches and defensive rotations.

That does not mean this team is a dribble-drive force. It ranks 16th in the country in assist rate, as 61.3 percent of its made baskets are created via the pass. The one negative aspect of the team’s attack is its outside shooting, as the Golden Grizzlies shoot worse than 33 percent from deep. It makes up for that, however, with efficiency in the paint.

Undersized post player Jalen Hayes leads the charge, averaging 16.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game and earning three double-doubles in his last four games. Stevie Clark and Sherron Dorsey-Walker do most of the distribution, and Dorsey-Walker is Oakland’s most reliable perimeter scorer. Martez Walker leads the team with 17.4 points per game as a 6’6” slasher that does a fair amount of scoring from the foul line.

On the defensive end, the Golden Grizzlies are a bit of a mystery to an observer who hasn’t watched much of them this season. They apply effective on-ball pressure without creating a ton of turnovers and manage to bother shots without fouling. If Clemson wants to play a slower game, it probably can since many of Oakland’s peers in the Horizon League also like to play fast. That could explain why the Golden Grizzlies play quick possessions on defense.

Level of competition should still give Clemson a decided advantage.

It’s a well established fact that Clemson has been in every game this season down the stretch except for three. North Carolina, Duke, Florida State (once), Virginia, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Wake Forest all made the NCAA Tournament—and all of them found it difficult to knock off the Tigers, especially at home.

Many of them did, which is why Clemson is where it is right now. Still, this Oakland team hasn’t faced nearly the level of opposition the Tigers have. It hasn’t been routinely tested at the tip-top of the national competitive ladder the way Clemson has. In fact, the Tigers may well represent the best basketball team the Golden Grizzlies have faced all season.

On the flip side, relative to the rest of Clemson’s schedule, Oakland profiles more like Nebraska or Mercer. From a size perspective, it’s a much less efficient version of UNC Wilmington, or perhaps a faster, quicker, stingier Mercer. The Golden Grizzlies are a tough out, but they give the Tigers a luxury that they haven’t had in a while. Clemson won’t feel like an undersized team at critical spots in this matchup.

That reality should manifest itself in paint points, on the boards, and at the foul line. It will also be interesting to see if the Golden Grizzlies’ quicker pace comes back to bite them. Clemson plays slower on defense, but its players’ instincts seem to be challenging passing lanes and trying to force turnovers.

If Brad Brownell releases the hounds and lets his team loose to go freely explore on defense, the Tigers could go up early and cruise to a win. They could also overcompensate and give up easy baskets if they’re not getting steals.

I expect the Tigers to score like they’ve been scoring, and I’m not sure Oakland can keep up with the kind of pace. This feels like a 78-65 win to me.

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