Game of the Week: #17 Clemson at Maryland (Saturday, January 13th, 2:00 PM, ESPNU)
After two weeks or so of conference play, we still haven’t learned much. One thing we did learn, though, was that this season is going to be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. Nearly every team in the country is somewhat erratic, and there are dozens of teams that can look like a potential Final Four candidate on any given night. As a result, the conference races in the major conferences are going to be outstanding—for both the conference title and for NCAA Tournament bids. All of the wide-open races lead to plenty of great games every night, and this weekend is no different. The Big East has some excellent games, including Georgetown heading to Pittsburgh, Villanova facing Syracuse, and West Virginia going to Marquette. Of course, the Pac-10 has great contests, with UCLA on the road at USC, and Oregon and Arizona battling. Throw in a marquee non-conference game featuring Tennessee and Ohio State, and you have a jam-packed weekend. However, the Game of the Week takes place when Clemson puts their undefeated record on the line in College Park against Maryland. Expect an up-tempo game with tremendous athletes when these two ACC contenders face off.
Clemson was picked near the bottom of the ACC in the preseason, but were seen as a potential sleeper by some experts. The Tigers have been that, and then some. They are the lone undefeated team left in the country, starting the season with a 17-0 overall record, including a 2-0 record in the ACC. They are ranked #17 in the AP poll, and #6 in the RPI. Clemson has defeated three SEC teams in Georgia, Mississippi State, and South Carolina, as well two solid mid-majors in Old Dominion and Appalachian State. The Tigers have won back-to-back ACC contests on lay-ups in the final seconds, winning at Florida State and at home against Georgia Tech. Clemson averages just under 78 points per game, and gives up just over 61 a contest—good enough for third in the ACC. Ken Pomeroy has the Tigers as the 36th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 22nd-most efficient defensive team.
Maryland came into the season hoping to avenge back-to-back NIT appearances with a strong showing throughout the year in order to guarantee themselves an NCAA bid. They look like they’ve done just that. The Terrapins are 14-3 overall, but 0-2 in the ACC. They are #27 in the AP poll, and #22 in the RPI. Maryland started off the season with a bang, winning the NIT Season Tip-Off and going 8-0 before their first loss, to Notre Dame in Washington, D.C. Their hot start included wins over Illinois and St. John’s on the road, as well as victories over Winthrop and Michigan State. Their second loss came in the ACC opener, at Boston College, followed by a home loss to Miami last night. Maryland is third in the ACC in scoring, putting up just under 82 points per game, while allowing under 63 a contest. According to Ken Pomeroy, Maryland has the 51st-most efficient offense and the 10th-most efficient defense.
Clemson Team Breakdown
After last year’s second-half collapse in a season in which they started 11-0 only to finish 19-13, Clemson has been one of the most surprising teams this season, as no one expected them to be the last undefeated team standing. While some still say they aren’t for real, don’t count me among that group. The Tigers are a deep and talented group that can play at multiple speeds. They have a balanced offense, with five players averaging double-figures in scoring. Clemson likes to force turnovers so they can get out and use their athleticism to get points in transition.
Clemson’s frontcourt is not as well-known as their backcourt but they are deep and versatile with the ability to create match-up problems. James Mays leads the way. The 6-9 junior has won 28 games in a row for his career, as the team started 11-0 with him last year before he was ruled academically ineligible. He is very athletic on the inside and is capable of dominating in the paint. He is an outstanding rebounder and a quality scorer inside. Mays leads the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. He is also an excellent defender, and racks up plenty of blocks and steals. Trevor Booker starts next to him. The 6-7 freshman averages almost ten points and seven rebounds per game, yet plays less than 24 minutes a contest. Booker is an outstanding rebounder and a very good shot-blocker. He is also an efficient scorer inside. He had a 15-point, 12-rebound, 3-block performance in a game earlier this season. Wing Sam Perry rounds out the starting lineup in the frontcourt. He is a decent all-around player that can get points if needed and is scrappy on the defensive end. He averages less than 18 minutes per game, but gives solid production. Two sophomores, Julius Powell and Raymond Sykes, come off the bench up front. Powell is a solid inside-outside player who can score and rebound. Sykes is an athletic forward that can get up and down the floor for baskets. He is also a very good shot-blocker.
The backcourt group of Clemson is one of the best in the conference, if not the country. Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds start. They are both good all-around players who are extremely quick at both ends of the floor. Hamilton leads the team in assists and is second in steals. He loves to force turnovers on the defensive end. He is not a very good three-point shooter, but he can penetrate and get to the basket for points. Hamilton has scored at least 8 points in all but two games this season. Hammonds is a similar player—lightning-quick at both ends of the floor, but not a very consistent shooter. He is second on the team in assists and three-point shooting, and is also a double-figure scorer. He also takes excellent care of the ball, demonstrated by his 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. The best player on the Tigers might be K.C. Rivers. One of the best sixth men in the country, Rivers leads the team in scoring and is the best three-point shooter on Clemson. He is a good all-around player that can rebound well for his size as well as distribute and play defense. He has scored in double-figures in every game so far this season, and is averaging 17.3 points per game in ACC play. Freshman wing David Potter sees time off the bench on the perimeter.
Maryland Team Breakdown
Maryland has missed out on the NCAA Tournament two years in a row despite winning at least 16 games and 7 ACC contests in both seasons. They started strong both seasons, but faltered inside the ACC to end up on the wrong side of the bubble. This year should be different. The Terrapins are experienced and extremely athletic, which is a big reason for their hot start. They love to pressure the ball full-court on the defensive end and like the game to be a fast-paced, high-scoring affair. The Terps can play in the half-court, but are much more effective when they are pushing the ball in transition.
The frontcourt of Maryland is extremely active and they create mismatches with their size and athleticism. Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist lead the way. Ibekwe is second on the team in rebounding and leads the Terrapins in blocked shots. He is a good face-up scorer and a solid rebounder who can alter shots on the defensive end. He is very athletic and gets a lot of his points in transition by running the floor. He doesn’t have many post moves, but he can get looks with his leaping ability and versatile offensive game. Gist is a similar player in that he is extremely athletic and can block shots very well. He is second on the team in blocked shots and leads the Terrapins in rebounding. He is very tough on the boards and has a better post-up game than Ibekwe. Gist gets most of his points in the paint with his back to the basket. He had a 17-point, 13-rebound, 5-block performance two weeks ago in a win over Siena. It was his fifth double-double of the season. Bambale Osby and Will Bowers provide depth in the paint. Osby is a rugged rebounder who is tough to beat on the glass. He is very efficient scoring the ball and makes the most of his 14 minutes per game. He had 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks in only 23 minutes off the bench against Boston College earlier this year. Bowers is a veteran who gives good defense and rebounding for Maryland.
The perimeter group for the Terrapins has a variety of parts that fit together to form one of the best backcourt groups in the ACC. D.J. Strawberry is the leader of this team. He is an outstanding defender and athlete who is explosive on the open court. He can also shoot the three-pointer with efficiency. Strawberry leads the team in scoring and steals, and is definitely the key to this team. When he is creating havoc with his defense and making shots on the offensive end, this team is tough to beat. Mike Jones starts on the other wing. He is an outstanding long-range shooter who has a developing mid-range game, and can have a breakout game at any time if he gets hot from behind the arc. Earlier this season, he scored 29 points in 27 minutes, and 27 points in 21 minutes. Jones is also a decent rebounder. The point guard spot is split between freshmen Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. Hayes is more of a pure point guard that is a good ball-handler and distributor. He is tied for the team lead in assists, but is not much of a scorer. However, the Steven Blake clone is an excellent long-range shooter who provides steady lead guard play when he is on the floor. Vasquez is a much better all-around player with his scoring and rebounding. He is very athletic and is one of the best playmakers on the team. He is tough to defend when he is driving into the lane. Parrish Brown provides a veteran influence off the bench in the backcourt.
This match-up is going to be full of athletes and pressure defense. Both teams would much rather play an up-and-down game than a half-court contest, and that’s what we are probably going to get. This is also a revenge game for Maryland. The Terrapins have lost four in a row to Clemson, including an 0-3 campaign against the Tigers two seasons ago. The teams are very similar, personnel-wise, with active frontcourt players who can block shots and rebounds, and perimeter players who can score and force turnovers on the defensive end. If Clemson is going to continue their undefeated season, they are going to need to do a few things. First, they need to hit their free throws down the stretch. The Tigers are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country. However, their guards are adept at getting into the lane for points, which provides them with plenty of chances to get to the line. They also are going to have to hit some outside shots. Their guards, outside of K.C. Rivers, struggle shooting the ball from behind the arc. If they hit some three-point shots early on, it will give them some early momentum, which will be key on the road. Offensively, they need to get the ball down low to James Mays. He is a very efficient scorer down low, and has the ability to have a big game. Maryland’s big men are shot-blockers who aren’t always disciplined on the defensive end. If he can get Ekene Ibekwe or James Gist into foul trouble, that could be big. On the defensive end, Clemson has to stop Maryland’s running game. If the Terrapins get plenty of points in transition, the Tigers could be in trouble. Look for the physical Sam Perry to slow down D.J. Strawberry early, and force him to take outside shots, which he doesn’t want to do.
Maryland has to get their full-court game going early and often. They are playing at home, and a quick start to the contest will get the crowd into it, forcing Clemson to come back on the road—not the easiest thing to do in the ACC. They also have to use their pressure defense to force turnovers. Clemson’s guards take care of the ball very well, and don’t turn it over very often. The Terrapins need to create havoc on the defensive end to get easy points in their fast-break offense. Also on the defensive end, they need to force Clemson to make outside shots. The Tigers’ guards, Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds, struggle shooting from three-point range but are quick getting into the lane. If Strawberry and Vasquez can force them to the perimeter, it could be a long day for the Clemson guards. Strawberry will also need to slow down Rivers off the bench. He is their best scorer and is a key cog in the Tigers attack. Offensively, Vasquez and Hayes need to take care of the ball. Clemson likes to pressure the ball and force turnovers with their ultra-quick guards. Additionally, they need to establish an inside game with Ibekwe and Gist. Both are good scorers and rebounders who have the athleticism edge over Mays and Trevor Booker. Moreover, if they can slow down Mays on the defensive end, the Terrapins will have a much easier time stopping the balanced Clemson attack. In the end, Maryland’s experience and homecourt advantage will make the difference. Both teams have similar personnel and athleticism, but the Terrapins are an upperclassmen-laden group who have been in these kinds of games before. If their freshmen point guards don’t get rattled by the Clemson pressure, they should win the game. Despite Maryland’s bad loss to Miami, look for the Tigers’ undefeated record to come to and end in College Park on Saturday.
Prediction: Maryland 76, Clemson 70
Prediction Record: 4-2