Clemson University

Strelow's Clemson-UNC forecast, prediction

Gotta love former SI writer Tim Crothers’ lede to his ACC Sports Journal story about tonight’s Clemson/UNC game.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try, try again.

I’m going to skip counting and just assume that is 53 tries, representing Clemson’s 0-53 record in Chapel Hill – the longest losing streak in NCAA history on an opponent’s home floor.

The No. 5 Tar Heels (16-2, 2-2 ACC) will try to make that 54 in tonight’s 9 p.m. contest on ESPN.

I’d bet it’s probably been since the back-to-back close calls in 1974-75 that No. 10 Clemson (16-1, 2-1) has traveled to this section of Tobacco Road with this much confidence it can win.

The Tigers had UNC on the ropes twice last year – once at home, once in the Smith Center – but couldn’t close the deal either time. Clemson gave the Tar Heels a run in the ACC tournament championship, but it wasn’t in doubt late.

There are so many reasons Clemson CAN win.

This is Oliver Purnell’s most capable offense in Purnell’s six seasons. Despite the upgrade in skill, it has shown that the ability to wreak just as much havoc with its full-court pressure and trapping. The Tigers, and long-range bomber Terrence Oglesby in particular, tend to play better on the road.

Conversely, I don’t feel like UNC has played with much an edge since it thrashed Michigan State. Seven-time All-American Tyler Hansbrough is putting up impressive numbers comparable to his previous years, but you just don’t get the sense he’s quite Pyscho-T anymore, and perhaps that is related to the stress fracture he suffered in the preseason.

Opponents have been better able to get back and slow UNC’s transition game. With Danny Green in the starting lineup because of Marcus Ginyard’s injury, its bench lacks any semblance of a scoring punch. And if Clemson point Demontez Stitt can avoid having his confidence shaken as he did against Wake Forest when Jeff Teague picked his pocket in the opening minute, Stitt should be able to drive on Ty Lawson, whose defense has come under Roy Williams’ scrutiny.

Those are the reasons Clemson CAN win.

It’s pretty simple why I think they won’t. Two-fold, really.

1. Hansbrough gets opposing big men in foul trouble. Trevor Booker has to score from the low post for Clemson’s offense to work as designed. And Booker can’t do that if he’s on the bench; he fouled out of last year’s two regular-season meetings and picked up four fouls in the ACC final.

2. The first game of “The Streak” that I covered was Clemson’s 87-69 loss in January 2002. To a UNC team that had a 5-11 record. To a UNC team that featured SoCon-quality guards Adam Boone (23 points, 10 boards!) and Brian Morrison.

Witnessing the Tigers surrender a seven-point lead in the final 2 ½ minutes of regulation last year merely reinforced my conviction that if Clemson didn’t win in 2002, there will never be grounds to think they should win there, regardless of how substantive a case could be made.

Wayne Ellington has tortured Clemson in transition, but maybe the Tigers have made progress with him, seeing as his production dipped from 36 points to 28 to 24 in the ACC final.

In that regard, I don’t think tonight’s game will be nearly as high scoring as any of last year’s affairs (103-93 in 2 OT, 90-88 in OT, 86-81) simply because neither is playing that great offensively right now.

I’m calling a 28-point, 14-rebound night from Hansbrough, with 13 of those points coming from the foul line.

But of more consequence to the Tigers, I’m thinking Wake Forest just wrote the book on how to stop Booker.

Now, the Demon Deacons have a blend of size, skill and athleticism few boast inside, so their results (Booker had 9 points on 3-for-9 shooting) might be the extreme.

But Wake Forest fronted Booker with one big, and its guards applied enough perimeter pressure that Clemson could neither lob it over the top nor swing the ball quick enough to set up an entry pass if Booker sealed his man.

Furthermore, Booker doesn’t hold his ground well in the post and can be pushed off his position. Thus he winds up having to drift out to the perimeter because it’s rather pointless to post above the foul line.

The simple answer, in addition to Booker being more physical and assertive inside, is that Clemson has to get a more efficient offensive outing from center Raymond Sykes, who made just 3 of 11 shots vs. Wake Forest (tying a career high in attempts).

Sykes is key. Purnell has to use him and Jerai Grant a lot tonight, because Deon Thompson and Ed Davis would eat up 6-6 swingman David Potter (frequently used as the 4) on the boards and in the post.

Wake Forest allowed the defender assigned to Clemson’s center to drift – either doubling the ball-handler if the center was used for a high screen, or to sag in the lane if the center was positioned at the foul line to run a high-low set with Booker on the block.

The result – Sykes fired up a couple of out-of-control runners in the lane when he found himself uncovered 10 feet from the basket.

My feeling is that UNC will be able to scheme to take away Clemson’s strengths. Conversely, what the Tigers do both offensively and defensively seems to play to UNC’s strengths, both from a defensive pressure standpoint and in relation to Purnell’s offensive sets. Clemson runs a lot of read-and-react plays with a high screener and four guys around the perimeter.

UNC has shown that if you move the ball against them, it will give up open shots. And the Tigers don’t really move the ball that well.

Who am I kidding? As if Xs and Os will determine this outcome. As gamblers tell me, never bet against a streak.

PREDICTION: UNC 79, CLEMSON 75

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