SG Trevor Cooney – Syracuse: In his last two games, the junior shooting guard has a combined 49 points, including in team-leading 28 points on 7-of-11 three-point shooting against Florida State. Cooney followed up the impressive performance against the Seminoles with a 21-point night against Wake Forest in the 86-83 OT win. The shooting guard has moved well without the ball spacing the floor and has been Syracuse’s biggest threat from the arc. On the season Cooney is shooting 39.2 (47-for-120) percent from deep.
C Rakeem Christmas – Syracuse: When will the senior center start getting the national attention that he deserves? Coming off of a 35-point performance against the Demon Deacons, Christmas was easily the best player on the court. In his last five games, Christmas has scored more than 15 points in four out of the five games and has grabbed eight or more rebounds in each of the five games. With the ability to score from anywhere in the paint, Christmas has completely turned the Orange offense around after a stagnant start to the season.
SG DeMarcus Harrison – Clemson: A transfer from Brigham Young University in 2012, Harrison has played an integral role for the Tigers since his arrival. Possessing quality size and athleticism at the 2-guard spot, Harrison is the most consistent outside shooter for Clemson at 39.7 percent (27-for-68). With the ability to slash and get to the bucket, Syracuse will have to be careful when closing out on him along the perimeter. However, Harrison is just 4-for-11 from the field in his last two games against Pittsburgh and Virginia and hasn’t appeared to be much of a factor offensively.
PF Jaron Blossomgame – Clemson: A former 4-star recruit in the class of 2012, Blossomgame has come on strong for the Tigers in his second year. Averaging a team-leading 13.7 points-per-game and a team-leading 8.3 rebounds-per-game, the redshirt sophomore has easily been the best player for Clemson all season. Held to just 9 points and 10 rebounds in a loss to Virginia, Blossomgame will look to get back on track and produce like he did in the Tigers’ road upset of PITT in which he poured in 18 points and 6 rebounds. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and create shots for himself, much like Syracuse’s Chris McCullough did early in the season before hitting a rough patch and then suffering a torn ACL against Florida State.
SYRACUSE OFFENSE VS. CLEMSON DEFENSE
According to Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins, Clemson plays some of the best man-to-man defense in the country, which has led them to some key victories this season, including the road upset of PITT, Jan. 10. In that game the Tigers limited the Panthers to 62 points on 39.6 percent shooting from the floor, including an abysmal 4-of-13 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.
Coming into the game at home against Syracuse, Clemson will have to guard the perimeter where the red-hot Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije continue to create space on the floor, which allows Rakeem Christmas to operate down low.
The Orange will look to get out and run much like they have all season long, which should create easy transition points in the paint while creating opportunities to get to the line. Opponents average just over 16 free throw attempts per game against the Tigers. As a team, Syracuse averages 13 made free throw attempts per game, so expect the Orange to get plenty of easy attempts from the charity stripe.
Against the Tigers, Christmas will draw the tough matchup against Clemson center Landry Nnoko (6’10”) who is averaging 8.3 ppg and 6.0 rbg. Although Christmas is about an inch shorter than Nnoko, expect Christmas to go right at him to draw fouls and put the junior center in foul trouble early. Nnoko averages 3.2 fouls per game, so the opportunity to put him in foul trouble and send the Cameroon-native to the bench for long stretches would be a huge win for Syracuse.
CLEMSON OFFENSE VS. SYRACUSE DEFENSE
In reality, there’s not much that Clemson does well offensively. The Tigers are a poor 3-point shooting team (29.0 percent). They get to the line often, yet shoot just 67.7 percent from the charity stripe. From the floor the Tigers have improved to 41.7 percent, but in their loss to Virginia the Tigers were an abysmal 15-of-42 (35.7 percent).
Against the Orange it will be up to the Tigers poor 3-point shooting to keep them in the game. Although the Tigers don’t shoot it well from the arc, guys like Demarcus Harrison, Rod Hall and Donte Grantham are threats from deep. Syracuse will have to close out on the Tigers shooters under control due to their ability to penetrate and create plays.
With the lack of depth behind center Rakeem Christmas, the Tigers could look to feed Jared Blossomgame, Landry Nnoko, Josh Smith and Grantham down low to try and put Christmas in foul trouble. Against Wake Forest Christmas played much of the second half and all of overtime with 4 fouls, so the senior center will have to be careful yet again.
Clemson is prone to turnovers, turning the ball over roughly 13 times a game, so perimeter hawks Trevor Cooney, Kaleb Joseph and Michael Gbinije could create opportunities for easy buckets in transition.
This will be a big road test for Syracuse, which struggled in their first two ACC games on the road against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Expect the Orange to be focused for a full 40 minutes once again led by Christmas, Cooney and Gbinije.
Syracuse 68, Clemson 59.