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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Clemson

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After a roller coaster ride in Asheville, the Tide travel to Atlanta for a big-time test against the Clemson Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Maui Invitational ended up being quite an up-and-down experience last week, as the Crimson Tide grabbed a pair of wins and a fifth place finish in the sport’s premier non-conference tournament. An ugly showing in the opener led to a quick turnaround, which speaks volumes to this team’s mental make-up. By the end of the week, we certainly know a lot more about this year’s group than we did prior to tip-off against Stanford.

With that being said, there is still a long way to go in this season, and after a nice layoff, that begins with the currently undefeated Clemson Tigers (4-0). Brad Brownell is somehow already in his 11th season as head coach, and by now, we know what to expect from his teams, having faced them numerous times in the past decade. The Tigers are an athletic and physical bunch that play at a slow pace. They always have a couple of guys who really make things happen on the offensive end, and they rely heavily on them in isolation. Brownell’s teams always defend the ball extremely well, and this year’s squad is certainly no exception (7th in Kenpom’s Defensive Efficiency).

In fact, this could be Brownell’s best team, maybe even eclipsing the Sweet Sixteen squad of 2018. Their 4-0 record isn’t against a bunch of scrubs - they have already beaten Mississippi State, Purdue, and Maryland to start off the season. An argument could certainly be made that this is the best team the Tide has faced yet, so Alabama will have to bring their best effort to Atlanta this weekend.

The Roster

Starting Five

  • POINT 6’2 Al-Amir Dawes (9.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG)
  • GUARD 5’10 Nick Honor (10.0 PPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 RPG, 2.3 SPG)
  • GUARD 6’4 Clyde Trapp (5.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG)
  • WING 6’5 John Newman (5.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.5 APG. 1.0 SPG)
  • POST 6’9 Aamir Simms (13.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG)

Glancing at the stat-lines above, what stands out the most? All five starters have decent assist numbers, which means, despite playing mostly iso ball, they do so intentionally. They run sets and have good off-ball movement. Alabama’s defense has really struggled at times under Nate Oats against teams that lull the Tide to sleep with long offensive possessions that end with dedicated plays.

What else stands out? Look at those steal numbers. Alabama has to take care of the basketball in this game. Clemson isn’t big in size, but they play a very physical brand of defense. Their lone post player, Simms, is the key cog that makes this team work. His offensive game (55.6%/40.0%/72.7%) makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses, but his lack of rebounding is surprising, as a 10% REB% is pretty bad for a guy his size. He makes up for that with an elite defensive presence though (74.0 DRtg).

Despite Simms being the key presence, Clemson is mostly a team of guards. Dawes and Honor, in particular, are impressive. Dawes is an explosive, off-the-bounce scorer, who, while not much of a shooter, is automatic from the line (40.0%/21.4%/90.9%). Honor is a bit more well rounded offensively (42.9%/37.5%/100%). Both are elite defenders (Dawes: 4.2% STL%, 75.8 DRtg; Honor: 5.7(!)% STL%, 75.2 DRtg). Trapp has been the knock-down shooter for Clemson so far this season (47.1%/40.0%/75.0%).

Off the Bench

  • GUARD 6’3 Alex Hemenway (4.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG)
  • GUARD 6’3 Chase Hunter (2.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.0 APG)
  • WING 6’8 Olivier-Maxence Prosper (3.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
  • WING 6’8 Hunter Tyson (6.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG)
  • POST 6’10 P.J. Hall (5.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
  • POST 6’10 Jonathan Baehre (3.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.5 APG)

The one, key difference that makes this Clemson team unlike Brownell’s previous incarnations is just how deep they are. They have played 11 guys regularly. Hemenway (54.5%/42.9%/100%), Tyson (43.8%/45.5%/71.4%), and Baehre (42.9%/40.0%/100%) have all started off the season on-fire from the field. Hall is a four-star freshman who is currently scoring at a 63.6% clip and sporting a 16.3% REB%. They’ve got a lot of quality depth on this team.

What to Watch For

  • Continued Effort. Man, the effort in the two games after the Maui opener were night and day for the Tide in Asheville. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look back at the Stanford disaster as the catalyst that drove Alabama the rest of the way on the team’s run to the top of the conference and a return to the NCAA Tournament. We’ll start to find out if that was the case tomorrow night.
  • Herb and Primo’s Emergence. Not to toot my own horn here, but I did tell y’all to keep an eye on Herb Jones’ offense in the Providence game, and he didn’t disappoint. 11 points on 4/8 shooting (and another made three!) and he handled the point extremely well in relief of Jahvon Quinerly, with the exception of a late stretch where he got a bit sloppy trying to run the lead up. If Herb keeps playing like this on the offensive end, he’s going to get drafted in the summer. Josh Primo, meanwhile, is starting to show why he was a blue-chip prospect. 15 points on 5/9 shooting (3/6 from deep) would be really nice to have off of the bench every night.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Defensive Communication. Alabama has had a number of issues on defense this season, but the number one problem has been communication. Calling out screens, talking on switches, picking up cutters, recovering after offensive boards, it’s all been a mess. Clemson will eat the Tide alive if that continues Saturday night. They will be perfectly content to run the shot clock down to ten seconds and then run multi-pass sets with plenty of off-ball movement. If they are able to do that all night, they will control the pace of the game, which would be a losing formula for Alabama.
  2. Take Care of the Basketball. I already alluded to this, but ball security is absolutely paramount against this team. Yes, Oats wants them to get out and run, but often times, that leads to a lot of carelessness with the basketball. That simply won’t work against this Clemson team. Go look at those steal numbers again. The one time Brownell let’s his guys run is in transition after a turnover, and the Tigers have the athletes to really make you pay.
  3. Get on the Glass. The biggest takeaway of the Tide’s victory over Providence last game out was the absolute domination on the boards, as Alabama out-rebounded the Friars 48-28. After getting bullied on the glass the first couple of games, that was the key to the Tide’s big win. Clemson has good size, but it’s mostly on the bench. If they trade size for speed to keep up with Alabama’s tempo, the Tide will have a huge size advantage with the likes of John Petty, Herb, James Rojas, Alex Reese, Keon Ellis, and, of course, Jordan Bruner. And Simms isn’t a great rebounder. If Alabama wants to control the tempo of this game, the Tide needs to control possession of the ball. The best way to do that is to corral all of the missed shots.

Alabama’s got another big opportunity this Saturday in Atlanta. Another neutral site victory over a power conference, tournament-contending team like Clemson would be massive. With the huge showdown with Houston next week now in serious jeopardy thanks to COVID issues with the Cougars, the Tide needs to take advantage of this opportunity. Hopefully the long layoff in between games allowed Oats and company to really go over the film with this group, because there was a stark difference between how they played against Stanford and how they played against Providence. More of the ladder would be welcomed.

The game tips at 6:30 PM CST and, for some reason, is only being streamed on the ACC Network+. Tune in with Christ Stewart and the guys on the radio, instead.