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UNC vs Clemson: Game Preview

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UNC hosts Clemson in Chapel Hill, where the Tigers have lost 58 consecutive games.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina, who recent jumped five spots to #15 in the AP poll, has hosted the Clemson Tigers 58 times in their illustrious history. To date, the Tigers have been completely and utterly defeated 58 times. It is one of the more remarkable streaks in all of college basketball, not just North Carolina or ACC history. Tomorrow night, the two teams put that streak on the line. Let’s break it down.

Clemson Tigers

Likely Starting Five

(G) Gabe Devoe (6-3, 200): 11.5 pts, 4.7 reb, 1.9 ast
(G) Marcquise Reed (6-3, 180): 15.9 pts, 4.7 reb, 3.0 ast
(G) Shelton Mitchell (6-3, 186): 12 pts, 2.4 reb, 4.3 ast
(F) Donte Grantham (6-8, 205): 14.9 pts, 7.4 reb, 2.2 ast
(C) Elijah Thomas (6-9, 251): 10.9 pts, 7.9 reb, 0.9 ast

After years of “almost”, “unlucky”, and “mediocre”, the Tigers may have finally be making a case for their first postseason appearance since Brad Brownell took former coach Oliver Purnell’s players dancing in 2011. In case you were wondering, there are four postseason tournaments in college basketball. Clemson hasn't been to any of them since 2011. Not to mention, Brownell has never defeated the Tar Heels. Ever. Needless to say, there are a few different streaks on the line

Even for a program notoriously as patient as Clemson is with their basketball program, it’s fair to wonder how Brownell is still even employed. (Hint: life is good at a football school). If all of this seems a little harsh, please remember, if you come at the king, you best not miss.

However, Clemson (15-2, 4-1 ACC) enter the game ranked #20 and tied for second place in the conference. With wins over Ohio State, Florida, Louisville, and most recently Miami, the Tigers have reason to be optimistic and confident. Not the most offensively explosive team, this team brings a suffocating defensive presence to the court.

According to sports-reference.com, their current defensive rating of 92.6 ranks as the 24th best defense in the nation. Advanced stat guru Ken Pomeroy as them ranked higher with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 92.5, good for 11th in the country. Statistically, they will be the second best defensive team the Heels have faced, trailing only Virginia.

Why they are so effective is up for debate. Truthfully, they don't specialize in any one department. They have committed almost as many turnovers (215) as they have forced (222). The allow teams to rebound over 25.9% of available offensive rebounds, while not dominating the boards themselves (629 total rebounds, while giving up 562). There are clearly weaknesses to exploit.

Yet, despite not having anyone taller than 6-9, their interior defense has been surprisingly effective. Teams are shooting 44% from two-point range, while attempting just 14 free throw per game. Clemson doesn’t foul at a high rate, and forces teams to miss or take poor shots. That...sounds unfortunately familiar to one of the other orange teams in the conference.

Offensively, they are heavily reliant on their starting rotation without much help from the bench. All five starters average double-digits, while nobody on the bench averages more than 5 ppg. As UNC has become more familiar with, a smaller rotation depends on versatile guard play, ball movement, and equal distribution. In Clemson’s case, they accomplish all those tasks while averaging just under 67 possession per game. The starting perimeter of Devoe, Reed, and Mitchell also pitch in with almost 12 combined rebounds a game.

With the exception of enhanced low-post scoring, Clemson might as well be called “Virginia-light”.

North Carolina

Expected Starting Lineup

(G) Joel Berry (6-0, 195): 17.4 pts, 3.2 reb, 2.9 ast
(G) Kenny Williams (6-4, 185): 12.1 pts, 3.4 reb, 2.4 ast
(SF) Cam Johnson (6-8, 210): 9.7 pts, 5.6 reb, 2.0 ast
(PF) Theo Pinson (6-6, 220): 8.9 pts, 5.9 reb, 4.3 ast
(C) Luke Maye (6-8, 240): 18.2 pts, 10.8 reb, 2.2 ast

With two games under their belt, this starting lineup is likely here to stay. Quite simply, these are the best five players for UNC (14-4, 3-2 ACC). When used to close out halves, they were demonstrably effective. As starters, they are 2-0, albeit with very different methods.

The positives are easy to see. Luke Maye has corrected his sub-par start to conference play with two more double-doubles, aided by torrid first halves (34 points, 19 rebounds). Theo Pinson and Joel Berry have a combined 15 assists and zero turnovers. UNC are still getting high-percentage shots (54% on 50-92 shooting) and Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley are still seeing plenty of opportunities to contribute.

Defensively, North Carolina’s underrated defense has continued to be stingy. While acknowledging persistent problems guarding the deep ball, both Notre Dame (38.7%) and Boston College (34.8%) struggled to score points. Neither team hit 70 points, despite taking a combined 128 field goal attempts, and hitting a combined 23 three pointers.

The only real question that has presented itself in such a short amount of time, is how consistently can North Carolina rebound the ball? Notre Dame was not a great rebounding team even before Bonzie Colson broke his foot. They still gathered 20 offensive rebounds on the Heels. Yet, four nights earlier, North Carolina’s Berry, Pinson, Williams, and Johnson out-rebounded Boston College by themselves.

Both optimists and pessimists have plenty of examples to support their arguments for and against UNC’s long-term prospects.

Expectations

Do not be fooled by Clemson’s past performances. They are a solid, competitive team that will be chomping at the bit for a true marquee win (sorry Florida). However, while they play a similar tempo and style to Virginia, there is one major area that UNC can attack.

Clemson commits more and forces less turnovers than Virginia. The Heels have not recorded double-digit giveaways in 3 of the last 4 games. What was a consistent pattern of unfortunate events is trending in a positive direction. If UNC can take advantage of another fast start by the new starting five, and combine that with extra possessions off of turnovers (or lack thereof), the Heels can force Clemson outside of their comfort zone.

Combine that with what one can only expect to be a more intense effort on the glass, especially at home, and the Heels should win comfortably. The key is limiting the total number of possessions for Clemson while picking up easy points in the paint. The Tigers are not a slow team that can play fast. They are a slow tempo team who don't have the depth to effectively play more 70 possessions a game.

However, if the Heels decide to play hot potato with the rock and allow Clemson to hang around midway through the second half, everyone can start their heart rate monitors.

Final Score: UNC 81-Clemson 68