Clemson represents the unpredictability of ACC men’s basketball about as well as any team in the league.
The Tigers lost to Yale and Miami in their two games before rattling off a three-game winning streak with triumphs over N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke. In the five games since beating Duke, Clemson has alternated between wins and losses, starting with a loss to N.C. State.
Clemson beat a surging Syracuse team last Tuesday before scoring a measly 44 points in a 56-44 loss to Wake Forest on Saturday.
“Not everybody in our league, but most of our league, they’re like us, like others,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “When they’re right, they can beat almost any team, and they’re susceptible with some of their inexperience.”
Part of Clemson’s inconsistency can be traced back to the location of its games. Brad Brownell’s team is 9-4 at home, 1-1 in neutral games and 1-5 on the road. The Tigers’ lone road victory came at North Carolina in overtime, and four of the five road losses have come by at least 12 points.
That’s good news for a Virginia team that plays well at home. The Cavaliers are 9-3 in John Paul Jones Arena this season, and they’re 151-29 at home under Bennett.
They’re good at home, and they’re dominant against Clemson.
When Bennett faces Clemson, the Tigers typically struggle to score. Virginia has won its past nine meetings against Clemson, and the Tigers failed to reach 44 points in four of those losses. The last time the Tigers came into JPJ Arena, they lost 61-36.
Clemson ranks 192nd nationally in offensive efficiency and 43rd in defensive efficiency. With one of the least efficient offenses in the ACC, scoring could be a problem for the Tigers on Wednesday.
Scoring could also be an issue for Virginia, which sports a more drastic difference in efficiencies, ranking 274th in offensive and 1st in defensive, but both teams win with defense. Both teams also rank among the slowest 100 squads in the country, giving Wednesday night’s bout a chance to fall below 100 total points.
To create offense, Clemson hopes to generate good ball movement and put shots on the rim any time an opportunity appears.
“You’ve got to move the ball, and then I think there’s a fine line between being sometimes too patient and you play too deep into the shot clock and you can’t — unless you have special players that can go create their own — it can be even more difficult playing against Tony’s team when it gets late clock,” Brownell said. “I think you gotta take the first good shot you can get.”
Most teams struggle to find any good shots against Virginia’s defense, but the teams that have knocked off the Cavaliers typically found ways to put efficiently put ball in the basket for at least a 5-10 minute stretch at some point in the game. Florida State and N.C. State showed it doesn’t take a monumental scoring effort to beat UVa, though. Both teams scored fewer than 55 points and beat the Cavaliers in January.
Given Clemson’s tempo, a recent 44-point showing at Wake Forest and weak offensive metrics, the Tigers likely need a low-scoring game to escape Charlottesville with a win.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Virginia loves low-scoring contests. Despite close losses to the Seminoles and Wolfpack, Virginia is 4-2 with two consecutive wins in games decided by five points or fewer. It’s also 3-1 when scoring fewer than 50 points. They’re used to tight, low-scoring games that come down to the final few possessions.
In its latest outing, Virginia made plays down the stretch to pick up a 61-55 win over a top-5 Florida State team. UVa ended the game on an 8-0 run.
“It always helps because we’ve been in that situation a few times,” Virginia guard Kihei Clark said of the final minutes against Florida State. “We just try to execute down the stretch and this just goes to show that you can pull out any game if you stick together.”
UVa is gaining experience and confidence, which is a dangerous combination. It’s especially dangerous for a Clemson team coming to town after a subpar road showing against one of the worst teams in the ACC.