We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during the Seminoles’ basketball season. For this rivalry week edition of our Q&A series features, we are joined by our friend Ryan Kantor at Shakin The Southland as we head into the second game of the series vs Clemson. You can find him on Twitter here.
TN: Clemson (15-10) is coming off of heartbreaking back-to-back losses on the road to Miami (65-64) and to Louisville. (55-56) How imperative is it for the Tigers to pick up a quality win against the Seminoles in order to keep at-large bid hopes alive?
STS: Clemson needs to reach 10-8 in ACC play to feel good about making the NCAA tournament without some sort of epic ACC tournament run. They need to finish 5-1 to reach that mark. It’s not totally unrealistic given the upcoming schedule, but with UNC in that stretch, they probably need to beat FSU to do it. They’re two losses away from a lost season so this game is imperative.
TN: Clemson finished the 2017-18 season making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 and tying the record for their most wins in season history, 25. With the Tigers returning most of the roster from their Sweet Sixteen run last year, does this season feel a little bit like a let-down or were season expectations set too high? If a let-down, where do you think Clemson has underperformed?
STS: At the risk of sounding negative, yes, this absolutely feels like a potential letdown season. Coach Brownell had a lot of returning talent. A return to the tournament was a reasonable expectation. It’s not out of reach, but it quickly becomes unrealistic if they don’t win on Tuesday.
This team is particularly frustrating because of how they’ve managed to lose. In the early part of the season, they were getting completely torched from three. Players were losing their man or sometimes just not doing a good job contesting shots. The two-point defense was great and ranks 11th nationally, but even after a few weeks of improved play, they still rank 246th in three-point defense. It’s gotten better though and I think we’ve largely moved beyond this.
The issue that I think Clemson fans are more up in arms about is that this team doesn’t seem to have the “grit” they did last season. They’re certainly gritty in that they play tough man-to-man defense, but they don’t seem to get dig down deep and come through in the final moments. They miss their clutch free throws. Crazy buzzer beaters always seem to go in against them. It feels much the way it did the year before last, when they lost seemingly every close game. They just haven’t shown the type of killer instinct you’d expect from such a veteran squad. They’re 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. If they’re going to make something of this season, they’re going to have to start coming through for each other in the big spots.
TN: How do you expect 6’11’ forward Elijah Thomas to perform up against FSU’s size and length underneath? He will be up against the Seminoles 7’4” Chris Koumadje who had an outstanding past couple games recording back-to-back double-doubles for the first time of his career. As well as the Seminoles leading scorer 6’10” Mfiondu Kabengele.
In the team’s previous meeting, Thomas posted a 17 point, 11 rebound double-double. He’s versatile enough that if he can’t use his size to score, he can turn and make a move off the dribble. He tends to get a little carried and pick up foolish offensive fouls doing it, but he undoubtedly has the skills. The main thing to watch is if Kabengele can get Thomas into foul trouble. Eli seems like a marked man sometimes. He certainly commits silly fouls at times, but the refs know it and seem to assume fouls were on him. He needs to avoid foul trouble and be an offensive contributor in this one.
TN: In order for Clemson to win at least five out of their next six games, which players need to step up for the Tigers to make this happen? Any players under the radar?
STS:Clemson needs to knock down more three-pointers for the offense to complement what is the second most efficient defense in the ACC. Clemson is 9-0 when they make seven or more three-pointers. They’ve not won an ACC game with fewer than six made three-pointers. It’s critical!
298 of the Tigers’ 478 three-point attempts have come from Reed, Mitchell, and Simms – a trio that ranges from 31.5% to 33.7% in three-point percentage. These guys have to pick each other up when one is not hot. They can’t all go cold on the same night, as they’ve done several times.
The only alternative is for Eli Thomas to carry the offense. He does this is spurts. I believe he is the team’s best player. The problem is he disappears at times. Sometimes they just can’t find him on the block with a good post-entry pass. Other times it’s because he is on the bench for an extended period during foul trouble.
TN: What are the fan base’s general feelings on Brad Brownell and his deliberate style of play? Are the fans filling up the newly remodeled arena?
STS:Personally, I like a slower tempo style of basketball. It is a great juxtaposition from what the NBA has evolved into. It’s much more like football in that they are probing and prodding defenses and taking what they’re giving them, rather than sprinting up the court and leaning on elite talent to make whatever reasonable shot they get in the first 10 seconds. I don’t think many Clemson fans feel the same way though. Although the full-court pressing style of Oliver Purnell never yielded an NCAA tournament victory, it’s made for entertaining basketball for the casual fan.
If Brownell could recruit a little better, I think this would be a non-question. Virginia fans certainly love grinding opposing offenses to a halt while running a slow but efficient offense. With a little more talent I think Brownell has the scheme to lead Clemson to something similar, but in the end, recruiting is his responsibility and it has fallen short.
Crowds in Littlejohn Coliseum have been good for weekend games, but these 9pm Tuesday games are tough. I can’t blame them though. That’s a ridiculous start time.
TN: Lastly, What is your prediction for Tuesday’s late night contest?
STS: Clemson is 4-1 at home in ACC play. The lone loss came to Virginia. The Tiger defense has been ferocious in Littlejohn. They’ve allowed ACC opponents an average of just 56 points per game in Littlejohn Coliseum. FSU is unlikely to match the 77 points they got in the teams’ previous matchup. If Clemson can knock down some three pointers, I like the Tigers chances. KenPom gives the Tigers a 54% chance to win. With their backs against the wall, it’s hard to know if they’ll quit or rally, but I’m betting on the latter.
Most importantly, a huge thank you to Ryan for his time and perspective! Be sure to head over to STS or follow Ryan on Twitter to stay updated on all things Clemson. Watch the Seminoles and the Tigers in action tonight at 9 pm on ESPNU.