By William Qualkinbush.
Brad Brownell says he looks at a season week-by-week and attacks the challenges of each seven-day period as they come. Because of this, it has been tough to get a good answer from him on the impact of the Clemson basketball team’s current stretch of five road games out of six total.
Rest assured Brownell is well aware of the stakes. Clemson has managed to sneak up on the nation during its 4-1 start in ACC play. Now people are beginning to notice, and the anonymity in which the Tigers operated during the first half of the season may be wilting away.
Tim Brando has mentioned Clemson as an NCAA Tournament team. Andy Katz highlighted the Tigers this week in a short video. Pat Forde lauded the team’s accomplishments in his weekly column.
Clemson is no longer under the radar. There will be a great deal more scrutiny during this murderous stretch than at any point since the season began back in November.
Pittsburgh is the first destination for the Tigers as they peruse the nether regions of the Atlantic Coast Conference landscape. If the rest of the nation is still sleeping on Clemson, I doubt Jamie Dixon and his staff are.
Pitt has done things a certain way for more than a decade, ever since Ben Howland established a national force there beginning in the 1990s. It is a tough-minded program that enjoys slowing the game down and forcing precision on each possession.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Dixon’s program—and Howland’s before him—is that it is a four-year destination. Rarely do the Panthers lose players early to the NBA Draft. Simply put, there are many aspects of Pittsburgh that Brownell would love to see as he builds in his image at Clemson.
This version of Pittsburgh has been very efficient, if untested, this season. Only Duke averages more points per possession than the Panthers in the ACC. They shoot over 48 percent from the floor without taking a ton of outside jump shots. Pitt loves to trigger its offense on the block or at the high post, utilizing its post players in a fashion some might call throwback.
One thing that may work in Clemson’s favor is Pitt’s penchant for getting its shot blocked. Teams average 7.7 blocks per game against the Panthers, worst in the ACC. Meanwhile, Clemson blocks an average of 6.5 shots per game, ninth-best in the country and tops in the ACC.
The Panthers also shut down the opposition, giving up an average of just more than 60 points per game. Clemson’s 53.6 points allowed per game leads the nation, but Pitt is not far behind. The defensive struggle is something to watch in tonight’s game.
The Tigers will probably have some trouble on the glass against Pittsburgh, even though Brownell’s club has rebounded the ball pretty well so far. No team in America allows fewer rebounds than the Panthers, who lead the ACC by rebounding 56.5 percent of all misses.
Pitt also loves to share the basketball. The Panthers assist on 63 percent of all made baskets, which leads the ACC, and rank fifth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. They will face a tough test in Clemson’s defense, which allows fewer assists than any team in the country by clogging up passing lanes.
The best individual matchup in the game is definitely K.J. McDaniels against Lamar Patterson on the wing. Both players have postured themselves to get some all-conference love so far. Patterson is a 6’5” junior with a well-rounded skill set. His shooting numbers (51 percent from the field, 43 percent from three, 78 percent from the foul line) are impressive.
Patterson can slash or shoot off screens. He can play with the ball in his hands or away from it. Unlike many wing players, he is a skilled passer, averaging 4.5 assists per game. He rebounds at a clip of 4.7 per game. He might be the best player in the country you haven’t seen play.
James Robinson is the point guard of the group. He distributes well, averaging a hair over four assists per game, and can be a pest for opposing ball-handlers. The Clemson bigs will have their hands full with junior Talib Zanna, who produces 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Pitt will look a lot like Clemson on defense. The Panthers enjoy playing tough man-to-man but will employ zone on occasion. Dixon likes the 2-3 matchup zone, which just about everyone in the old Big East has in its arsenal thanks to Jim Boeheim.
You won’t see a ton of motion from the Panthers, but Dixon’s sets are incredibly effective. They use ball movement and penetration to get shots as opposed to a ton of screening and player movement. When it works, Pitt can be a fun team to watch.
The Panthers have won almost 90 percent of their games at the Petersen Events Center, making it one of the toughest venues for travelers in all of college hoops. This game will be difficult for Clemson because crowd noise has rarely been a factor in road games for the Tigers.
The Panthers’ schedule hasn’t been great so far. Clemson would be the fifth-best win for the program in terms of RPI, but it’s a win that will look nice in the ACC standings. Conversely, a Clemson win would be a marquee one that will look nice come NCAA Tournament time.
Frankly, I think Pitt is a slightly better, more mature version of Clemson in many respects. I see this game going either way and keeping us on the edge of our seats. These are two of the slowest teams in college basketball, so I’d expect the score to be in the 50s. It’s a winnable game for the Tigers, and I expect them to cover the ten-point spread, but I see a five-point win for the Panthers tonight.