Clemson Tigers (11-4, 2-1) at Virginia Tech Hokies (8-7, 1-2)
7pm, Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, VA
TV: Regional Sports Networks, click the link below to find your area
RPI: VT (186, trending down); Clemson (109, trending upwards)....neither team is ranked at the moment.
Clemson comes to Blacksburg looking to build on last Saturday's impressive home win over Duke. They completely dominated the Blue Devils down the stretch with three of their players submitting double doubles. The aptly named Jaron Blossomgame tallied 14 points and 14 rebounds against Duke as he continues to strengthen physically after missing last season with a broken leg. The redshirt freshman forward blew his season averages of 4.5ppg, and 4.6 rebounds per game out of the water. My guess is that he will also be leading the nation's #1 scoring defense by guarding Hokie senior swingman Jarrell Eddie. Blossomgame held likely top NBA lottery pick Jabari Parker to just five points after halftime in Saturday's win.
The Clemson starting lineup boasts no seniors. The top player for Clemson is K.J. McDaniels, who gives the Tigers about 17 ppg and 7 rpg. McDaniels had 24 points and 10 rebounds and played Duke Wooden Award watch list candidate Rodney Hood to a standstill, if not better. This was his third triple-double of the ACC season, tying for the league lead. Finally, the Clemson front-court is rounded out by Landry Nnoko, who has 25 lbs on any of the Hokie interior players. At 6'10" he is an imposing presence, who blocked four Duke shots, while adding 10 pts and 13 rebounds against the Blue Devils. Very impressive for the entire front-line to come away with triple-doubles in a single game.
Normally the interior is an area I see the Hokies having an advantage in depth and a lot of times in physical size. This is certainly not one of those instances. Once again, I personally implore Coach James Johnson to make use of redshirt senior center Cadarian Raines. Coach Johnson has been quoted multiple times as saying, "It's not so much what Raines isn't doing, it's what Joey Van Zegeren and Trevor Thompson are doing." (Mark Berman, Roanoke TImes)
I have several choice words that I feel are appropriate to the scenario, but inappropriate for this space. What exactly is Trevor Thompson doing that demonstrates he is going to do more with his minutes than Raines? Where are the mysterious mistakes that Johnson (and even Raines, in attempt to placate Johnson no doubt) alluded to? Raines did not get to play a single minute against BC, a game the Hokies lost by three points. If the Hokies can't develop a fifth year senior player who can't make more than a three-point difference in an outcome over a freshman, there is something wrong with player development. Over-simplification? Probably. But it doesn't make me wrong.
Clemson is the nation's number one scoring defense at 53.5 ppg allowed. By the numbers this doesn't bode well for a Hokies team that has failed to eclipse 60 points in four of their last five outings, each of them losses. In the win over Miami it took VT the full five minute OT to get to 61 points. As the season has begun to get more competitive the Hokies offense, which is over-reliant on the pull up three early in the possession before the defense(s) get set, has grown staggeringly inefficient and has been marred by recent inaccuracy. The Hokies have fallen off their pace on three-point shooting, dipping to just above 40% from range, and falling several points in the national rankings. If not for the robust three-point shooting this season, the team would be far worse. Per Coach Johnson, "We're offensively challenged right now." (Mark Berman, Roanoke Times).
Knowing and admitting is half the battle, but the fact is Johnson doesn't have the right tools at his disposal. The team needs more guard depth, and it needs to get a grasp on a game plan they can base their half court sets on. Since he took over, Johnson has promised up-tempo, and has given up on it early in each season. The system he uses can beat Southern Conference teams (in some cases not, see UNC-Greensboro), but against disciplined teams that are excellent in transition defense, his offense will stall. It is a miserable experience to watch, especially in situations where the spotlight shines, like when the team is down a point with the shot clock turned off. When will Johnson out-scheme the opposition in a timeout and draw up a play that we can execute?
In Saturday's loss, the game winning attempt by guard Adam Smith was a nightmare. The Hokies began running the play too early and were stuck in no man's land with an isolation attempt from a right handed shooter on the left baseline, with VT's shortest player shooting a well-defended fall-away jumper. That play gets an F, Coach. I know in the post-game press conference Johnson said it was to be a pick and pop with Eddie an option, but if the rest of us can see Smith plays offense with blinders on, then surely the coach must know this as well. The announcer(s) actually started off by saying it was a good look, and then quickly retracted that upon watching a replay.
There are a couple asterisks with regard to Clemson's top-ranked defense. First, they played by far the weakest schedule of anyone in the ACC. Even after playing Duke and Florida State, their strength of schedule ranks lower than 200. Their coach, Brad Brownell, emphasizes hard-nosed D, and from the time I've watched Clemson they'll mix it up and throw hard-nosed man, matchup zones, and even a straight 2-3 zone in there. They also have personnel to pressure the ball full-court, which I'd advise if I were coaching against VT. The Hokies backcourt depth is shallow, and the young guards are indecisive and error-prone. The Clemson perimeter defense has been superb, as they allow just 24.6% from distance.
The Tigers four losses came to teams that aren't highly regarded. They lost to Auburn (meh), UMass (RPI #3 even without VT top 2013 recruit and de-commit Donte Clark, but still A-10), Arkansas (gaining traction, but still not impressive), and FSU (apparently far better than anyone credited them, RPI 26). The Tigers are 3-0 against like opponents, having destroyed VMI, Furman, and edging BC on the road. The Hokies fell short against BC at home on Saturday, but had little trouble with Furman or VMI. Something else that might be in the Hokies favor is that Clemson has not won back to back ACC road games since 2009.
The Hokies lead the lifetime series, 15-13, and the series has been dead even recently as the teams have split their last 10 meetings.The Hokies won the season-ending game vs Clemson last year, which is just peachy, considering VT has played Clemson several times in the final weekend in March and suffered some serious injury to their NCAA tournament hopes. The Hokies lost critical March games to Clemson in 2005, 2007, 2008, and in Jan 2009 (killed momentum), each by less than four points. Seems like whenever their isn't anything on the line, the Hokies play fine, but when ACC tournament seeding and selection committee momentum are on the line, they lose in embarrassing fashion. I apologize for the negativity, but admittedly the trends that develop over decades watching a team take root. I guess I should be a little more optimistic, at least we don't have a lifetime losing streak (some 56 games in a row) in Chapel Hill like the Tigers do.
VT senior Jarrell Eddie will look to snap out of his funk tonight. He has lost some of his form over the last 5 games, scoring 12 or less (he was averaging close to 18 ppg after the Miami game, before winter break) in four of the five games. It has been established that he is the life's-blood of this offense. Other guys cannot get shots AT ALL if Eddie is not creating the space for them. He still ranks 2nd in the ACC in three-point metrics, but those numbers are dipping also. The team needs to try to give off the impression they are trying to establish some inside-outside balance. Even if it's disingenuous, and just to force the other team to move underneath their basket some. Teams are jumping the Hokies ballhandlers at the hash marks, and our young guards who are quick to pick up their dribble, are getting us bogged down before the team can even attempt to run any of it's rudimentary sets.
Adam Smith is critical to the success of this year's team in whatever limited form that may take. His injury due to a strained calf seemingly mostly in the rear-view, it's important that he embrace his role as primary ball-handler off of the bench. With Ben Emelogu starting in Smith's absence, the Hokies can boast of a tall starting lineup, with no player under 6'4", so that has it's advantages. It also gives VT the chance to sub Smith for Wilson and have a ball-handler who commands attention with his quickness and ability to penetrate. Playing Wilson and Smith together was redundant to me, and I was exasperated with the lack of creativity by Johnson earlier this season in setting this plan in motion. The only drawback to this situation is that Smith still believes his primary job out there is to score, and he has been feeling himself a little too much lately. He is capable of some instant offense, but his shot-selection needs constant re-calibration. Yes, he hit some deep threes vs Syracuse to keep VT afloat, but at some point, he needs to get others involved at the expense of his own offense. It's the only way he'll ever progress from his typical night of 13 points and three or four assists on sketchy efficiency and usage numbers into a well-rounded player.
Gamer simulation has the Hokies winning at home 68-65. That would just be lovely. But based on the trending (think two ships passing in the night), I have a hard time seeing the Hokies righting the ship tonight, unless Raines plays a lot and the Hokies meet the challenge physically. If Johnson can manage the minutes right, and Eddie plays McDaniels to a draw, VT might be able to win the war of attrition this game will become. I wouldn't be surprised to see a ton of foul shots tonight. The Hokies need to win this game, because they have games at Notre Dame and at UVA in their next three. If VT can win vs Clemson and against Wake, coming out of the UVA game at 3-4 wouldn't be too bad an accomplishment. Of course, had the Hokies beaten BC, they could have hit the halfway point at 5-4 or even 6-3, with games at BC and home vs the reeling Maryland Terrapins looming at the end of the first half of the ACC campaign. As it is I'll be extremely happy with 4-5 at the halfway point, if the Hokies can achieve it. That maps out to 8-10 in March, though the second half is admittedly a bit more difficult. Any way it's sliced, this game is critical to Tech's fortunes the rest of the way. A bad loss here and there may just be too much doubt.
School doesn't begin until next Tuesday, so let's all thank John Swofford and his scheduling staff for posing three of our home games (a full third of our home ACC slate) during the winter break. The home crowds have reflected this. I don't think the Hokies have played in front of more than 2,000 fans since the VCU game in Richmond. Certainly, the team needs to do it's part, but Cassell Mausoleum could use a few more students in the seats. I am not optimistic for a Wednesday night. Nonetheless, I will be watching, and have started this nifty game thread that I hope some of you will join me on tonight during the game. If you have joined us for football, you know that we have fun. I will also be monitoring the Twitter account @GobblerCountry. As always, feel free to hit me up in the comments with any questions you might have about the team.
As always, Mi Cassell es su Cassell.