NCAA Tournament 2011 March Madness First Round Preview: (5) WVU vs. (12) Clemson

Precariously, WVU has drawn one of the winners of the first-ever "First Four" games as its opening round opponent today in Tampa.  Much has been written about Clemson's short turnaround and, since, WVUIE97 has done a swell job of covering that in the Shotgun/Throwdown, I won't go into it here.  But I did watch most of the game and let's just say I'm not as confident in a Mountaineer win now as I was when the brackets are announced. 

Clemson has been on a roll lately, their only losses since February 20 coming at Duke and against UNC in the ACC tournament when UNC made a furious comeback to pull out a late victory.  Then they throttled UAB 70-52 in the First Four game and look to continue that momentum---lack of sleep be damned!---against WVU.  The Clemson blog, Shakin the Southland, did an excellent preview of the matchup here, so I'll try not to step on their toes too much. Fortunately, they focused a lot of their attention on WVU, so I'll try to shed some light on what Clemson is about after the jump.

Stats

First, the stats.  Clemson currently sits at 22-11, 9-7 and tied for 4th in the ACC with Boston College and Virginia Tech, both of whom missed the tournament.  By my count (and I could have missed one of the low-majors), Clemson has played 8 games against teams who made the tournament, beating Florida State once and losing its return game to the Seminoles as well as losing to Old Dominion, Michigan, Duke, and North Carolina (three times).  The Tigers also have a trio of bad losses, all on the road, at South Carolina, at Virginia, and at NC State.  The other loss, for you math majors, was at Maryland. 

For comparison's sake, Clemson beat Seton Hall 64-58 in OT and swept Miami (FL), winning 63-59 in Coral Gables. 

Players to Watch

Clemson is led by a trio of players averaging over 10 points per game:  Demontez Stitt (14.4), Jerai Grant (12.4), and Andre Young (10.8).  Those three are primarily complemented by another trio all averaging around 8 points per game:  Milton Jennings (8.4), Devin Booker (8.0), and Tanner Smith (7.8).

From watching the Tigers' matchup on Tuesday night against UAB, it looks like Clemson is not incredibly big (like, say, Pitt) or particularly quick (think Villanova), but is relatively athletic across the board (akin to Marquette).  That in and of itself gives me some hesitation because the one thing Marquette did well to beat WVU was apply pressure in the half court and force the Mountaineers to turn it over.  Clemson will probably try the same tactic, and WVU will have to handle that pressure and avoid turning it over, which for a team like WVU that relies so heavily on offensive rebounding to score points would be a death knell.  The other thing Clemson will probably try to accomplish is getting points in transition, attempting to take advantage of another Mountaineer bugaboo this year---transition defense. 

Limit turnovers and quick runouts and the game appears to favor WVU.  Clemson does not look to be an especially strong 3-point shooting team or rebounding team, which bodes in WVU's favor if the game comes down to half-court defense and rebounding.  Look for Cam Thoroughman, John Flowers, and Kevin Jones to play pivotal roles in keeping the Tigers off the glass and creating seond-chance points for the Mountaineers.

Efficiency

For what it's worth, Clemson is currently ranked one spot ahead of WVU at 21st on KenPom.com.  They rank 6th in the country (compared to WVU's 29th) in defensive efficiency, and 20th in steal efficiency.  In other words, look for a low scoring game as both teams will plan to pack it in and limit production where they can. 

Prediction

WVU enters somewhere between a 1.5- and 2-point favorite.  The matchups look fairly even, with Clemson holding a slight edge in overall athleticism and WVU having the upper hand in experience and rest.  Despite the matchup issues (and probably partly as a result of my eternal optimism), I keep coming back to the fact that Clemson's best win came at home over Florida State.  I just don't think they're used to playing---and beating---really good teams on a consistent basis.  Not that WVU is great, but I think they're better than Florida State and a handful of other teams Clemson lost to (although probably not as good as Duke or UNC).  Bottom line: Clemson has yet to beat a team of WVU's caliber this year.  I can't bet against that trend now.  WVU 61-56.

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