It has not been often during their 0-for-forever streak that the Clemson Tigers have come into the Dean Smith Center with as slim a margin of quality separating them from the Tar Heels as they will on Tuesday, with Ken Pomeroy separating the two teams by just 6 places (UNC at 9, Clemson at 15) and the AP Poll separating the two by 5 places. UNC had an uneven week, dismantling a decent Boston College team at home before barely surviving at Notre Dame minus Bonzie Colson. Clemson’s was similarly uneven but probably worse, as they beat a talented Louisville squad in overtime before losing in Raleigh to a State team that has killed some giants, but hasn’t been that good the rest of the time. Both teams will be looking to stabilize and get back on track in the ACC. Here are a few things to look out for on the UNC side:
Shocker, I know. Last week was the first week that Roy Williams decided to start his “Death Lineup,” the lineup that had been closing out halves for the two weeks prior and turned the ball over just once while consistently outscoring the opposition. On paper, it hasn’t yielded the results UNC would like to have seen; the lineup was outscored in both games last week. The bigger issue, however, particularly to Coach Williams, is rebounding. While it was not a problem whatsoever against Boston College, where the duo of Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson outrebounded the entire Eagle side, it was a huge problem against Notre Dame, which rebounded 45.5% of their missed shots on their way to a 45-37 rebounding advantage. Knowing Williams’ dedication to winning the rebounding battle, this alone could be reason enough for him to change back, at least temporarily, to a more traditional lineup to have more size on the floor to hit the glass. Lineups with big man Sterling Manley held a 6-3 advantage on the boards, according to Joe Giglio.
I don’t think rebounding is a problem with this lineup. Look at the Heels’ offensive rebounding numbers: the Heels got 37% of their own misses back, which is right in line with the 39.5% that they have averaged all season long. Guard DJ Harvey has averaged 3 rebounds a game the whole season, and grabbed 8. Point guard TJ Gibbs has averaged 2 a game and had 5 against the Heels. While the aphorism that long shot attempts lead to long rebounds is mostly unsupported by data, it certainly appeared that Notre Dame got a lot of long bounces to their guards that were the fault of no Heel in particular. The last possession was a problem, as nobody boxed out the shooter, but I don’t think that was representative of the whole game. The five players who make up the Death Lineup are clearly UNC’s best players. We’ll see how Roy chooses to use them this time.
The Heels have had a knack for tightening up on the defensive end when they need to, particularly on the defensive end and especially on the perimeter. Kenny Williams has gotten a lot of recognition, but the whole lineup has been excellent for the most part except for a couple of lapses (see opening of first half vs Boston College). This could be key against Clemson, which at times can have a ball-stoppy offense (51.5% of their field goals are assisted, compared to 57.9% for UNC). Locking down on the perimeter, particularly with the trap that has been fairly effective at times in close situations.
Clemson is a decent three-point shooting team, hitting 37% of their looks from deep with two high-volume, high-efficiency shooters. Keeping an eye on them will be key to the Heels’ success tomorrow. Williams is particularly important here, as he is the Heels’ most disciplined perimeter defender, the one most willing to not help on drives at the expense of open shooters. It is not a coincidence that Notre Dame scored three-pointers on 4 straight possessions after he fouled out. Hopefully, he’ll be able to play every minute he needs to against the Tigers.
This will be brought up ad nauseum in the next couple of days, but it does deserve mention. Clemson basketball has never won at Chapel Hill, and most of the time, it’s pretty explainable: UNC usually has better teams than Clemson does. This year, though, it’s not so clear-cut, and folks in western South Carolina are likely thinking this could be the year the streak ends.
For my money, it won’t be.
My freshman year, people were saying the same thing about a 13-5 team led by K.J. McDaniels and Jaron Blossomgame going against the 11-6 Heels, led by sophomore Marcus Paige and and literally nobody else on the perimeter. The Heels won 80-61, and it wasn’t even that close, as every Clemson player had a defensive rating over 120 while literally nobody on UNC crossed that mark. Coaching matters. Home court matters. And at some point, curses matter, particularly when they’re spoken into existence as often as this one is. It’ll be interesting to watch what others have to say about it, particularly the men who will be participating, and how it might manifest.