Pregame: Syracuse at Clemson

After routing San Diego State in front of a record NIT crowd on Monday night, the Orange hit the road to take on the Clemson Tigers for the second time in school history at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Tigers started the season as one of the hottest teams in the land, racing out to a 17-0 start, but faltered down the stretch to wind up with a 21-10 record and the top seed in the NIT South Region.

The Tigers have topped East Tennessee State and Ole Miss in the first two rounds of the NIT to improve to 23-10 on the year, and in Monday night's game versus Ole Miss they looked more like the team that started the regular season 17-0 than the one that finished 4-9 and then lost to Florida State in the first round of the ACC tournament.

The Tigers are an athletic team that loves to pressure opposing teams and force turnovers to create easy baskets. For the season, they have forced opponents into an average of 17.6 turnovers per game, including the 24 that Ole Miss committed in Monday's blowout. In that game, the Tigers dominated the "hustle" categories, getting 44 points in the paint, 23 points off turnovers, 19 second chance points, and 12 fast break points.

The Tigers were led in that win by freshman post player Trevor Booker (6-7, 215), who scored 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. The team shot well overall, making 52.5% of its shots from the field, and knocked down 7-of-16 tries from deep. Senior guard Vernon Hamilton (6-0, 195), junior guard Cliff Hammonds (6-3, 197), and sophomore forward KC Rivers (6-5, 210) each hit a pair of threes in the win.

In the first round victory over East Tennessee, Booker posted another solid all-around game with 11 points and 11 boards, but made just 4-of-11 attempts from the field. Rivers led the team with 17 points and 14 boards, but had a tough day from deep, where he hit on just 1-of-7 three pointers.

Overall this season Rivers has been the team's top scorer despite starting only seven games. The swingman is scoring 13.3 points and grabbing 4.5 boards-per-game and is also the team's top deep threat, making 39% of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Hamilton is the team's second leading scorer, averaging 12.3 points to go along with 3.2 rebounds-per-game. Hamilton is also the prime example for how poor of a free throw shooting team Clemson is, however, hitting a dismal 48.8% of his attempts from the charity stripe. Collectively the Tigers make just 58.8% of their attempts, with Rives the only starter – along with the only person to get significant minutes – who shoots better than 70% from the line.

James Mays (6-9, 225) is tied with Hamilton for the second best scoring average on the team at 12.3 ppg and is the tied with Booker as the team's leading rebounder, pulling down 6.5 boards-per-game. Mays shoots a decent percentage from the field, making 47.2% of his shots.

Hammonds, like each of the other four starters, averages double-figures in the scoring column. The junior guard pumps in 11.7 points and dishes out a team-best 4.1 assists-per-game in addition to grabbing 3.2 boards and shooting a solid 37.4% from beyond the arc. Booker rounds out the starting rotation and averages 10.4 points and 6.5 boards-per-game, along with shooting just over 60% from the field.

Key reserves for the Tigers include Sam Perry (6-5, 208) and Raymond Sykes (6-9, 215). Perry has actually started 28 games this season, but has been replaced in the starting five by Rivers. Perry averages 3.9 points and 2.7 rebounds-per-game. Sykes sees fairly limited minutes (10.7 per-game) but is one of the team's top shot blockers with 35 on the season. The sophomore also hits on 61.7% of his attempts from the field.

Overall, the Tigers are a strong shot blocking team, ranking 17th nationally in that category. Besides Sykes, Booker is the most prolific shot blocker with 73 on the season for an average of 2.2 per-game. The Tigers also boast a decent assist-to-turnover ratio on the year, dishing out 15.6 assists against 14.2 turnovers, while opponents have a 12.6-to-17.6 ratio.

Clemson has been pretty adept at scoring the rock all year, averaging 73.4 points and shooting 46.6% as a team. They typically make more threes than their opponents, though in the first two rounds of the NIT their opponents have knocked down just 7-of-32 attempts (21.9%) from deep. On the season, however, teams have made nearly 34% of their three point tries against the Tigers. The team also holds a slight edge in rebounding overall this year, out-boarding their opponents 35.5-to-33.4 based mostly on their strong overall team athleticism.

The Tigers could prove to be a tough match up for the Orange for various reasons. In some games this season, the Orange have made up for mental lapses and bad turnovers with their superior athleticism and some timely threes. A team that sometimes makes bad decisions with the ball and makes sloppy turnovers can get into trouble when they go up against an aggressive defensive team like Clemson. Additionally, the Tigers feature enough athleticism to counter the athletes that Syracuse typically puts on the floor. They don't have quite the size of the Orange, but man-for-man they are probably just as athletic.

Where the Orange trump the Tigers is in the shooting and overall skill department. While the Orange are often careless with the ball and can get into stagnant stretches in the half court offense, they also have more players with good all-around basketball skills than Clemson. Clemson has also relied fairly heavily on their athleticism, particularly on the front line, to win some ballgames this season.

However, while the Orange may struggle against a team equally as athletic, the same is true of the Tigers, who don't have as many skill players or as much size to make up for the usual athletic mismatches that won't be nearly as prevalent against Syracuse. The Orange are at their best when they get out and run, and going against a team like Clemson could potentially lead to even more break opportunities than usual due to the naturally more frenetic pace that a pressing team creates.

The Orange should have no trouble rebounding, though they've got to continue their improvement in terms of keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Players like Mays, Booker, and Rivers are exactly the type of athletic and agile forwards who could be a nuisance once a Clemson shot goes up.

It seems basic, but for the Orange to win, they need to limit turnovers and control the paint. Syracuse is also not a particularly deep team, but Clemson features even less production off the bench. All five starters score in double-figures, but after that the next highest scorer is Perry with his 3.9 ppg.

Additionally, while the lack of depth at the big positions is typically a concern for the Orange, Clemson doesn't have the size either in the starting lineup nor coming off the bench to make it much of a problem. In fact, considering the Tiger front line goes 6-7, 6-9, 6-5, this is a game where Paul Harris could truly excel.

Prediction: This one could go either way, really. The Orange have only played one non-conference road game, which was the win over Canisius in Buffalo. Overall the team has been solid on the road, posting a 5-4 record. It should help that there likely won't be a crowd on hand to rival any of the boisterous venues within the Big East, as the Tigers average just around 8,000 in attendance, and could not crack the 4,000 mark on Monday night.

The Tigers looked strong at the beginning of the season, though the most notable wins over that stretch were probably against Old Dominion and Appalachian State, so in other words Clemson did not exactly face a murderer's row of opponents to get to their 17-0 start. The Tigers looked very good against Ole Miss, but Syracuse is also no Ole Miss.

This has the potential to be a fun game to watch, with two of the more athletic teams you'll see this season getting up and down the floor. However, Syracuse holds advantages in terms of size, depth, and shooting, and enters the game with a much bigger chip on its collective shoulder.

The Orange go into Littlejohn Coliseum and avenge the loss in 1960 with a final margin falling somewhere between 8-15 points.


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