While Duke and Virginia continue to battle, North Carolina quietly moved to the top of the ACC standings. Sure, the Tar Heels probably won’t win outright because of a loss to Virginia, but not many expected them to contend for the title after losing to Texas and getting blown out by Michigan early in the season. Clemson has something else on its mind and that’s simply getting to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have been on the bubble most of the season because outside of beating Virginia Tech, they haven’t done much, at least in terms of quality wins. A win here would change that and likely put them into March Madness.
Easier said than done given how UNC has looked winning 11 of its last 12 Games with the lone loss being to Virginia. This Game may be on the road, but the Heels have already won fairly easy away from home against the likes of Louisville and Duke (without Zion). To win this Game, the Tigers have to step to another level rarely seen. They’ve already been swept by FSU and blown out by Virginia at home so it won’t be easy to back them.
These teams play almost the opposite with Clemson’s goal to slow things down and UNC’s to speed it up. Usually, the advantage goes to the better team. The Tigers have the second-most efficient defense in the ACC, but their offense has been miserable at times and they aren’t good on the offensive glass. However, one thing that could benefit Clemson is its ability to match up at every position with UNC.
Starting in the backcOurt, Clemson’s senior duo of Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell won’t be afraid of the high-flying Coby White. While the freshman just dropped 34 points, he failed to surpass 10 in the three Games prior. If White doesn’t catch fire, UNC’s next option is Cameron Johnson, who is usually a matchup issue at 6-foot-9, often playing as a small forward. That task goes to David Skara and Aamir Simms, two slightly different players that could help stop Johnson. Of course, those two will also be used on LUke Maye, who may struggle in this Game. Maye can have awesome Games, but when matched with able bigs, he usually has issues and that’s why he scored just 15 total points in two meetings against Clemson last year.
The slight advantage Clemson could have in this Game is Elijah Thomas at the five, averaging 13.1 points, 7.8 boards and 2.1 blocks per Game. He was effective when these teams met last year (27 points, 7 blocks in two Games) and will also be a problem for Maye and Garrison Brooks. But while Clemson matches up well, it still has to score, which hasn’t been a consistent thing this season.
Reed usually does most of the work with 19.2 points per Game, but they can’t rely exclusively on him this Game. That’s where Thomas steps in down low, or Mitchell hits some shots from deep. Otherwise, no one else on the team is an offensive threat and that’s why it’s in the position it’s in right now. If the Tigers can ride their defense and limit what guys like White and Maye can do, they should be competitive. Syracuse tried to run with UNC on Tuesday and it worked for a time, but ultimately didn’t have enough. The Tigers will slow things down and hope the trio of Reed, Mitchell and Thomas can do everything offensively against a mediocre defense. Combining for 50 points or even 60 is possible, but getting production elsewhere is key because even if this Game is slow, UNC will still find its way to at least 70 points.
Our Pick – North Carolina -4