With the 78-61 beat-down of USC-Upstate in the rear-view mirror, the Alabama Crimson Tide (5-4) now turn their attention towards another school from upstate South Carolina, the Clemson Tigers (7-2). They may both be from the same area, but this Tiger team doesn’t have much else in common with the Spartans that Alabama easily dispatched of Tuesday night. This is an experienced, talented group that is in a bit of a “put-up or shut-up” kind of year for head coach Brad Brownell. When do-it-all forward Jaron Blossomgame announced that he would be returning to school for his senior season, this year officially became an NCAA Tournament-or-bust year for Clemson.
Alabama will take a quick trip on a short turn-around up to Birmingham for this match-up. Avery Johnson has made it a priority to lock down the state’s top high school talent, and a bunch of it comes from the greater Birmingham area, so the 2nd Annual Vulcan Classic is important in more ways than one. Last year’s exciting battle with eventual NCAA Tournament 1-seed Oregon was well-attended and left an overwhelmingly positive vibe around town. This is a critical game for the Alabama program.
- PG 6’3 Shelton Mitchell (9.2 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- OG 6’2 Avry Holmes (11.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WF 6’8 Donte Grantham (12.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
- PF 6’7 Jaron Blossomgame (18.2 PPG, 5,7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.1 BPG)
- C 6’10 Siddy Djite (8.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG)
Clemson boasts one of the most athletic starting fives in the loaded ACC, which is really saying something. Blossomgame, who was First-Team All-ACC last season, is really a microcosm for this team. He’s long, explosive, physical, and can rebound (9.5% RB%), score (50.0% FG%) and defend (97.1 DRtg). Grantham is a very similar player out on the wing, though he’s a better shooter (35.6% 3P%), but not necessarily a better scorer (43.3% FG%), as Blossomgame can take the ball to the rim with the best of them (60.2% 2P%). Grantham is also a fantastic free throw shooter (91.7%), so it would be wise to lay off of him if he’s taking it to the lane. His rebounding (9.9%) and defensive ability (96.8 DRtg) are nearly identical to Blossomgame’s.
Rounding out the front-court is Djite, who has taken over the center role with authority in his first year starting. He averages nearly a double-double per game on 55.3% scoring and a tremendous 20.2% RB%. His defensive rating is also the best on the team at 90.9, so he can protect the rim.
In the back-court, Vanderbilt transfer Mitchell has come on strong as a nice scoring option for the Tigers since returning from his knee injury earlier this season. He’s shooting 51.6% from the field and 45.5% from beyond the arc. Last year’s point guard, Holmes, has played off the ball more this season, but he’s struggled a bit to adapt to that role (35.9% FG%, 34.6% 3P%, down nearly 2.0 APG from last season). However, he is a talented player and a natural shooter, so he is capable of getting it right at any moment.
- G 6’3 Gabe DeVoe (11.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 SPG)
- G 6’3 Marcquise Reed (9.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- C 7’1 Legend Robertin (0.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.5 BPG)
The Tigers are short on quality depth, as Robertin is the only true post player that comes off the bench for significant minutes, and he has a long way to go before he ever comes close to living up to his first name. However, DeVoe and Reed are both very good players. DeVoe is basically a sixth starter, as he ran the point very well when Mitchell was sidelined (41.9% FG%, 38.8% 3P%, 76.5% FT%, 3.3 APG to 1.7 TOPG), and Reed is the best three-point shooter on the team at 48.8% from downtown.
What to Watch For
- The Young Guns. Despite an influx of upperclassmen due to a number of transfers from outside of the program, the 2016-17 Alabama basketball team looks like it’s success will hinge on the play of three particular guys: Dazon Ingram, Braxton Key, and Donta Hall. Hall is really starting to come into his own as a sophomore, as his performances the last few games have given Alabama a massive advantage in the post, something this program has been starved of for years now. Ingram is an erratic player, but the kid can play, and he makes things happen offensively. Key is the future of the program (along with incoming 5-stars Collin Sexton and John Petty), and the more he continues to develop and gain confidence, the better off this team will be. Also, Avery Johnson Jr. has played his tail off in the back-up point guard role. Look for him to continue to increase his minutes in the rotation.
Three Keys to Victory
- Up the Tempo. Alabama and Clemson are both deliberately slow in pace, but it may behoove the Tide to speed things up in this game. Not only will that force the Tigers to play a style that they aren’t particularly comfortable with, it will also create an opportunity for Alabama to take advantage of their superior depth. Clemson only has seven players who are averaging double-digit MPG, and they are all averaging 20.0+. In fact, three of them (Blossomgame, Grantham, and Holmes) average over 30.0 MPG. Alabama plays ten different guys for more than 10.0 MPG, and none over 30.0. Speed them up, make them uncomfortable, wear them out, and take advantage.
- Tight Rotations. When Clemson is able to set up in the half-court, they are tough to stop. They run a bunch of different sets with the intention of working inside-out. They attack the basket with guys like Blossomgame and Djitte and then kick it back out to their plethora of three point threats (Mitchell, DeVoe, Reed) for open looks on the perimeter. Alabama’s defense will need to be quick on their rotations, especially if Blossomgame and Mitchell are frequently beating guys off of the dribble.
- Feed Hall. Donta Hall is currently on a tear offensively, as he has scored on thirteen of his last sixteen attempts. This Alabama offense is a completely different animal if Hall is contributing on the offensive end. Clemson only has one guy who can adequately defend Hall on a possession-to-possession basis in Djitte, but if the Tide have done a good job of tiring him out...
To be blunt: this is really a critical game for Alabama if they hope to make any type of run at the NCAA Tournament. The Selection Committee will not look favorably on the Tide if they come away from non-conference play having lost to every quality opponent they played, regardless of how well this team might play during the SEC slate.
Regardless, this team needs a big win to get them going. Clemson’s being slept on by most casual basketball fans, but Ken Pomeroy currently has them ranked #29 in the country. This is, in all likelihood, an NCAA Tournament team, and the Vulcan Classic will once again be a massive opportunity for Alabama to get things rolling on the hardwood.
The game will tip-off at 3:00 PM CST on Sunday and will be televised on ESPNU.