Game of the Week: Clemson at Duke

January 18th, 2008

Game of the Week: No. 24 Clemson at No. 7 Duke (Saturday, 6:00 PM, ESPN)

Take one quick look at the college basketball scene and it’s obvious that the parity around the country is unbelievable. Outside of the top handful of teams, there are dozens of teams that look unbeatable on certain nights and unbearable on other nights. As a result, it makes nearly every game between potential contenders in conference play a key game. This weekend features several of those types of games, including a bevy of Pac-10 showdowns with Arizona State taking on Stanford and Oregon facing Washington State; a couple of Big East battles highlighted by Notre Dame-Georgetown and Marquette-Connecticut; as well as a battle of unbeatens in the Missouri Valley with Drake taking on Illinois State. However, the best game is between the top two contenders to North Carolina’s throne in the ACC – Clemson heading to Durham to take on Duke. Both teams love to spread the floor and attack the basket offensively and force turnovers defensively, so prepare to be entertained all night.

Clemson Team Breakdown

In what seems to be a recurring theme for Clemson, the Tigers got off to yet another hot start, starting 10-0 this season. It was the third year in a row that Clemson began a season with at least 10 straight wins. However, like the past few years, the Tigers have struggled somewhat since the undefeated beginning. They have lost three of their last seven games, including back-to-back home losses to North Carolina and Charlotte. Only a double-overtime win against Florida State kept the losing streak from extending to three. On the other hand, the Tigers own wins over Mississippi State, Alabama, Purdue and South Carolina. They are ranked No. 23 in offensive efficiency and No. 25 in defensive efficiency.

Clemson is a deep and balanced team, with ten players consistently seeing playing time and five guys avearging in double-figures. Wing K.C. Rivers leads the way. Last year’s sixth man extraordinaire has been excellent in the starting lineup, scoring in double-figures in every game but one this year. However, he has slowed down somewhat lately, averaging just 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in his last three contests. He is flanked on the perimeter by freshman point guard Demontez Stitt, who has improved with every game but is still inconsistent, and senior Cliff Hammonds, an all-around solid player who takes care of the ball. In fact, Hammonds may be the most underrated player in the ACC – he can do everything. Sixth man Terrence Oglesby ranks third on the team in scoring despite playing just 18 minutes per game. He has hit 10 of his last 18 three-point attempts.

Up front, athletic big man James Mays and physical rebounder Trevor Booker start. Mays contributes more than numbers – although they are impressive. He is at the top of the team’s press and changes the game defensively. Booker is a beast on the glass and has also shown the ability to score. He has become one of the best big men in the ACC, averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in his last five contests. Raymond Sykes has shown potential and athleticism off the bench, while Jerai Grant also provides depth. Wing David Potter might be the team’s best three-point shooter, while former start Sam Perry can defend.

Duke Team Breakdown

Duke has bounced back from a disappointing season last year, in which it was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Eric Maynor and Virginia Commonwealth. The Blue Devils have just one loss on the season, a one-point defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh when Levance Fields hit a step-back three with three seconds remaining. Duke owns marquee victories over both Marquette and Wisconsin. The Devils are extremely undersized, with no one on the roster taller than 6-9 since Brian Zoubek broke his foot. However, they play tenacious defense and have overcome the height deficiency by creating match-up problems at the other end of the floor. Duke is ranked No. 13 in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency.

Duke’s success starts on the perimeter, where it boasts one of the deepest and most talented set of wings and guards in the country. Five players rotate in and out of the game, with all five averaging at least 16 minutes and six points per game. Gerald Henderson and DeMarcus Nelson lead the way on the wings. Henderson has developed into one of the premier perimeter players in the ACC. He is extremely talented and athletic, and has finally been given a chance to showcase that. Nelson has developed greatly since he arrived in Durham, and is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and is second in assists. Greg Paulus starts at the point. The oft-criticized junior, despite his quickness and defensive deficiencies, is a solid leader that takes care of the ball and shoots the three. Jon Scheyer started last year, but comes off the bench this year and has developed into one of the best sixth men in the country. Nolan Smith backs up Paulus.

Up front, Kyle Singler has been one of the most impressive freshmen in the country. He is very difficult to guard, due to his ability to shoot the three, score inside and create players off the dribble. He is fundamentally sound and creates match-up problems for nearly any defender. Lance Thomas starts at the five, but he’s more of an athletic forward who can run the floor and finish. Taylor King, who comes off the bench, is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. If he is open from anywhere on the court, he will take a shot. David McClure is a decent role player.

Game Analysis and Prediction

The popular opinion around the country is that the ACC is North Carolina’s to lose. While that may be the case, don’t give them the title just yet. Both of these teams are going to have something to say about it before the year is all said and done. Clemson took North Carolina to overtime and the Tigers probably should have won that game if not for late-game heroics by Wayne Ellington, and Duke is playing some of the best basketball in the country, at both ends of the floor. As mentioned above, both teams like to spread the floor and create opportunities going to the basket. Each team has a plethora of athletic wings and guards who can take defenders one-on-one off the dribble, and then make plays in the lane. Clemson has been getting great production down low from Trevor Booker, and he and James Mays give the Tigers great inside balance to go with the shooters and scorers on the perimeter. Defensively, the Tigers pressure full-court throughout the game, with Mays harassing the inbounds passer. They love to create points off turnovers; if Duke can consistently can break the press, Clemson is in trouble. On the other side, Duke likes to exploit its quickness advantage it has on the opponent. There’s usually at least four players that can shoot the three on the floor at the same time, making them difficult to defend. Defensively, the Blue Devils are tenacious on the perimeter and force their opponents into mistakes.

If Clemson is to go into Cameron and pull off the upset, it is going to have to do several things. First, the Tigers are going to need to force turnovers off their press and get easy points in transition and off fast-breaks. Greg Paulus usually takes care of the ball, but he can get rattled against pressure. Clemson needs to get momentum early if it wants to win the game. Secondly, they need to take advantage of their edge in the paint. Trevor Booker has been a beast down low lately, and no one on Duke can defend him. Furthermore, James Mays is also very difficult to stop when he gets the ball around the basket. Both players need to have big days. Lastly, the Tigers need to knock down free throws and take care of the ball. Demontez Stitt is still a freshman, and he needs to keep his composure on the road against Duke’s pressure and the crowd. Of course, Clemson always struggles with free-throw shooting, so that basically goes without saying; in a close game, it could cost them.

Duke should be the favorite heading into Saturday evening’s game with the Tigers, but it needs to do a few things in order to guarantee victory as well. First, it has to take care of the ball and manage Clemson’s pressure. North Carolina got easy basket after easy basket early in the game until the Tigers finally took off the press. Duke has the athletes on the wings to finish in the open court, but Paulus can’t turn the ball over in the backcourt. Secondly, they have to try and get Booker and Mays in foul trouble. If either of those players is out of the game, it negates the inside advantage Clemson has. Also, because Duke spreads the floor so well, it will bring the bigs away from the basket and open up driving lanes for Gerald Henderson, DeMarcus Nelson, etc. Lastly, Duke has to pressure the perimeter players for Clemson. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Booker and Mays will have solid games, but shutting down K.C. Rivers, Cliff Hammonds and Terrence Oglesby will be important. If they get hot, Clemson is much more difficult to defend.

In the end, Duke will come out on top – and I think it will be fairly handily. The Blue Devils are playing at home, where they are extremely difficult to beat, and they are playing very solid basketball right now. On the other hand, Clemson is struggling, although they might have righted the ship in its last game against North Carolina State. Either way, Duke has too much perimeter talent and they are also playing some of the best defense in the country – the Devils haven’t given up more than 70 points in a game since December 1. Although that mark could be in doubt on Saturday, the winning streak, on the other hand, will definitely continue.

Prediction: Duke 81, Clemson 70