Looking to build on a big victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats, the Gators welcome the Clemson Tigers to Florida for the Orange Bowl Classic. Playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tigers are a talented team that will be sure to play with some fire when they take on the Gators. Playing in the ACC behind a lot of blue blood programs and graduating longtime stud Jaron Blossomgame has put Clemson on the backburner of many people’s minds, but I think that could be a critical mistake. Sporting an elite starting five and beginning the season with a tidy 8-1 record, this is a sneaky good team hiding in plain sight in a power conference. Let’s take a look at what we can expect when the Gators and Tigers collide.
Season to Date
The Tigers are 8-1, and their best victory so far has been a 79-65 drubbing of Ohio State. They have also taken care of business when playing some talented mid-majors with victories over really good Ohio, Hofstra, and UNC Ashville teams. Temple was the team to tarnish Clemson’s flawless start with a 67-60 win on a neutral floor, and that Owls team is a quality squad that dominated Auburn, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Everything about Clemson’s record indicates that they are a really good team that deserves more attention then they get, but they will always get pushed to the side by the “name brand” teams in the ACC. Their strong start is also evidenced by KenPom, who has them as the 32nd best team in the country. I think that the Gators are past taking any team lightly this season after some unsavory losses, but they especially can’t overlook this Tigers team which is actually looking like one of the best games on the Gators’ non-conference schedule, something they probably didn’t expect when they scheduled this contest.
Clemson has a really good starting five that consists of Donte Grantham, Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, Gabe DeVoe, and Elijah Thomas. That is a quality starting group, with each player averaging double figures in scoring. Four of those players average more then 2 assists per game and four of them average over four rebounds, so it is a really well rounded group of athletes. The problem for the Tigers comes when they have to substitute in the bench. Clemson reserves have yet to earn the trust of head coach Brad Brownell, and don’t factor heavily into their game plan. Only 25.4% of available minutes for the Tigers go to their bench, which is 311th in the country. That has a few implications. Firstly, the Gators should have a really good idea of who they need to scout, since they don’t go deep into the rotation. Additionally, playing so few guys for so many minutes means that Clemson has to play slow (they are 255th in the nation in pace). Playing slow isn’t a bad thing in basketball (though every coach likes to say their teams play fast), but it means if the Gators are able to dictate tempo and play quick then Clemson could have some tired legs early. The Gators will also have to look to attack the hoop early and often, as if the Clemson starters pick up early fouls then their rotation could be totally thrown off and they could be out of their normal rhythm.
Clemson plays slow and methodically, working through their sets, running multiple actions, and looking for the defense to flinch before finding an open shot. This has lead to the Tigers having a 44th offensive efficiency rank, and they are 25th in effective field goal percentage (field goal percentage that adjusts for the fact that a 3-point attempt is worth 50% more then a 2-point attempt). The Gators will have to be disciplined defensively and mentally prepared to guard for the entire shot clock without letting up. These long offensive sets by Clemson also involve a lot of ball screens as pick and rolls lead to 16.9% of their shots, more then any other opponent the Gators have seen so far this year. There are many different ways to defend ball screens, so the most important thing for the defense to do is communicate what they are doing so everyone can adjust and react. Some ways to defend a ball screen are to have the primary defender work to go underneath the screen (when you want to respect a ball handler’s driving ability), fight overtop of the screen (when you want to respect a ball handler’s shooting ability), or execute a straight switch with the defender of the player setting the screen. You can also “ice” pick and rolls that are trying to go towards the middle of the floor (this is where the player defending the screen setter hedges out towards to the ball handler and prevents him from using the screen, instead forcing him to the baseline) or “blitz” pick and rolls (send the defender of the screen setter to double team the ball handler, forcing him to give up the ball to a teammate). Whatever the Gators do, they just have to be ready for these screen and rolls to happen, communicate what they are doing, and execute. Clemson also likes to post up a lot, and they are extremely effective at it shooting 56.9%. Junior Elijah Thomas is the player that gets most of the touches on the block and preparing for him will be key in the Gators scouting report. A majority of the time he gets the ball on the left block, and is favorite move is to spin over his left shoulder towards the baseline for a hook shot. Against Cincinnati, the Gators send help into the post from the baseline which should work great against Thomas should they decide to use the same philosophy. Florida will also be able to send help without feeling too nervous about leaving players, as Clemson does not shoot the ball particularly well from outside. At 34.8% from three they are an average shooting team from behind the arc, and instead prefer to look inside for 2-point shots around the paint where they are 10th in the country shooting 59.7%. Clemson will try to bully their way inside for shots around the rim and the Gators will have to show the same toughness they showed against Cincinnati to protect the paint and force the ball outside.
Not showing any glaring holes, the Tigers are a fundamentally sound defensive team that doesn’t allow a lot of easy points. They usually play a style of defense called “pack line” (popularized in modern college basketball by coach Tony Bennett at Virginia) which has off-ball defenders sag towards the paint to deny dribble penetration at all costs. Though beating this defense off the dribble can be somewhere between really difficult to impossible, the pack line philosophy does give up open jump shots. Will they continue to pack the paint and allow the Gators some open looks, or change up what they normally do in case the Florida shooters heat up? That will be the question on Saturday. If shots aren’t falling pack line defense can be extremely frustrating to face as you feel like you can move the ball easily around the perimeter, but as soon as you think you might have an open shot a defender is right there contesting with a hand in your face. If guys like Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson are feeling it from beyond the arc this could be a great defense to face, but if they struggle to rise up and knock down shots then Florida will have to get creative in how they attack. Playing close to their hoop means that Clemson also defensively rebounds extremely well, and they are the 9th best team in the country at preventing offensive rebounds. Packing the paint also generally keeps defensive players in position at all times so Clemson doesn’t foul a lot, giving up the 11th fewest free throws in college basketball. As if easy buckets weren’t already going to be hard enough to get for the Gators, the Tigers also do a great job with transition defense. First off, they do this by not turning the ball over a ton (only getting the ball stolen from them on 6.7% of possessions). This prevents them from ever giving up odd-man breaks which almost always lead to points or a foul. They also don’t send many players to the offensive glass, instead electing to have their players fall back after a shot is taken to make sure they don’t get beat on the run. Put all these things together, and Clemson only allows 46.3% from the field in transition, a really strong number. This is a really strong defensive team, and has the potential to make things particularly difficult for the Gators.
Clemson Tigers to Watch
I mentioned Elijah Thomas earlier as a player who could cause some trouble inside, and he will definitely be someone to key in on. His desire to get the ball on the left block and turn towards the baseline should play perfectly into the hands of Florida’s defense, so hopefully he can be neutralized. Their high scorer is Donte Grantham at 16 points per game so he will also be someone to watch. He does an outstanding job of moving away from the basketball to score so his defender can’t fall asleep when the ball is on the opposite side of the floor. He loves to watch his defender, wait until he looks away, than cut towards to hoop for an uncontested layup. Those are the kinds of scores that drive coaches crazy, so they need to be prevented.
The bench unit. We don’t know exactly who will be starting and who will be coming off of the bench since it has been fluid, but whoever comes off the bench needs to bring energy and a change of pace. We know Clemson doesn’t utilize their bench often so if the Gators can constantly run fresh bodies against them then eventually the Tigers could be worn down. Deaundrae Ballard comes to mind as a guy with a high energy level who could give the Tigers fits with his energy level, and even one or two easy buckets from outworking a tired Clemson starter could be the difference in this game.
What are you expecting in the Orange Bowl Classic between Florida and Clemson? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums. Also, remember to keep it locked to Gator Country before, during, and after the game for more coverage.