This NCAA tournament has been absolutely insane this year, and the Kansas Jayhawks are hoping to do its part to keep the madness from spreading when they take on the Clemson Tigers. To help us figure out just how likely that is, I reached out to Shakin the Southland, the SB Nation site covering the Tigers. Jay Ingles was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
RCT: What were the expectations for this Clemson team coming into this year. Is a Sweet 16 appearance enough to make this season successful?
STS: Considering that the Tigers hadn’t even qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2011, making the Dance alone was enough to consider this season a success. Now with two impressive performances behind them in the tournament, it has become one of the best seasons in Clemson’s basketball history. The irony is that last season was supposed to be the year it finally came together for Brad Brownell, but between an incredible number of painfully close losses and perhaps a lack of total buy-in from some players, it just didn’t materialize the way we hoped. That led to scaled-back expectations for this season despite a decent amount of talent returning, with the media picking the Tigers 13th out of 15 teams in the ACC and our STS brain trust considering us perhaps a bubble team at best. But this team has been consistent all season, even in the wake of losing its most well-rounded player in Donte Grantham two months ago. They finished tied for 3rd in the ACC and racked up a number of good wins, not succumbing to a late-season collapse as they have done more than once. This run has been special and rewarding for Clemson basketball die-hards like myself (Yes, they exist.) who have suffered through the struggles of the Brownell era and under past coaches. So, yes, this season can only be considered a resounding success and will hopefully be something the program can build on.
RCT: Clemson completely destroyed Auburn in the last round, at one point leading by more than 40 points. How much of that performance can Clemson really count on going forward against Kansas?
STS: I think the Auburn win should give them confidence that they can play at a high level on a big stage, which certainly helps from a mental standpoint. With regard to Clemson’s game against Kansas, however, it doesn’t mean much. There are obviously elements of that performance the Tigers would like to replicate against the Jayhawks, but it will of course be much tougher against an opponent of Kansas’ caliber. Clemson will not be able to finish at the rim to nearly the degree it did against Auburn, and they also can’t rely on the Jayhawks to miss 18 straight field-goal attempts like Auburn did. Of course, it’s not as though Clemson was incredible statistically in that game. They shot 48% from the field and 39% from three, which they could certainly match against Kansas if they play pretty well. I think the bigger question is whether Gabe DeVoe can continue to shoot threes at a 66% clip. That’s tough to expect. What will likely be different is that Kansas will presumably have more success against Clemson’s defense than Auburn did.
RCT: What do you think Clemson’s plan of attack will be against the Jayhawks? Any strengths of the Tigers that will be helpful in taking down the Jayhawks?
STS: Clemson is 7th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, so I think Kansas may have a tougher time than usual getting open looks or easy baskets. That said, the Jayhawks are elite offensively, so it will probably be more of the Tigers trying to mitigate their potency on offense rather than the kind of defensive shutdown they put on Auburn. They will have their hands full with Graham, Newman, Mykhailiuk, et al. and will have to do what they can to keep them from getting in rhythm.
Clemson has a number of capable 3-point shooters, and generally when the Tigers shoot it well from the deep, they win (No shock there). If Gabe DeVoe or Marcquise Reed sees one or two go through, they can become very problematic for opponents because they don’t need much space to let one fly. Clemson really thrives from three when they are able to penetrate and kick for open ones, however, so their plan of attack should be to keep the ball moving and have Shelton Mitchell and Reed try to break defenders down off the dribble and kick to shooters.
Ideally that can open things up on the interior for Elijah Thomas, who has been great so far but hasn’t had to deal with anyone nearly as imposing as Udoka Azubuike. Kansas is good defensively (45th AdjD), but they are just the 14th best of the 16 remaining teams. Azubuike definitely presents a problem at the rim, but I think Clemson should be able to find ways to score the ball.
RCT: What are the weaknesses of this Clemson team, and how well do you think KU will be able to exploit them?
STS: My number one concern for Clemson in this game is post depth, particularly on the defensive end. Thomas had an All-ACC caliber year defensively, but he is prone to foul trouble. I think Thomas can hold his own with Azubuike, but if the Tigers have to dive into the bench for long stretches of the game to try to deal with his offensive presence, it could spell disaster. I have to believe Clemson would prefer to make Azubuike beat them at the free-throw line when Thomas is not in the game, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see them err on the side of putting him there any time he gains a positional advantage inside.
Kansas’ offensive prowess is also worrisome. They can still beat you if you are able to hold one or even two guys in check. Clemson has one of its best offensive teams in recent memory, but they do not want to get in a shootout with the Jayhawks by any stretch. If this game gets into the high 70s or the 80s, the Tigers are going to have trouble keeping up. They would prefer it in the low 70s and would be thrilled with a game in the 60s. That would be indicative of a pace they are more comfortable with, despite what their first two tournament games may lead you to believe.
Clemson does not rebound the ball at the offensive end with any kind of consistency (some of this comes from preferring to get bodies back defensively rather than send them to the glass), which means they will likely be unable to exploit the one thing Kansas does poorly – keep opponents off the offensive glass – unless they make a concerted (and uncharacteristic) effort to do so. If the Jayhawks can get the Tigers to miss their first shot more often than not and keep them off the free-throw line, they will be in pretty good shape.
As a team that is relatively reliant on the 3-pointer, Clemson can sometimes fall into lulls where they settle for too many of them. The Tigers are often too happy to oblige a defense by shooting contested threes as opposed to working for something better. If they make them, that’s one thing, but it’s more likely that if Kansas can force them to take more bad ones than good ones, Clemson’s efficiency on the offensive end will take a hit.
RCT: Prediction Time! Who wins the “and friends” portion of the ACC Postseason Invitational (in Omaha)? And any chance that the winner doesn’t have to face Duke?
STS: Kansas is the more talented team but hasn’t exactly played like it through two rounds of the tournament. Clemson, on the other hand, has looked about as good as it has all season in its first two games. If there hadn’t been five days between these games, I might have been inclined to ride the Tigers’ momentum to an upset pick. But as much as I would love to go with my heart, my head says the Jayhawks edge Clemson in a competitive game. Kansas’ offensive weaponry may prove to be just a bit much for the Tigers to keep up with, and you always tend to give an advantage to the team that has been there before.
Syracuse’s ability to make runs in NCAA Tournaments they arguably shouldn’t have been invited to is astounding. It’s incredible how that zone can throw even seasoned coaches for a loop because they just never have to face it. The problem for them in this game is that Kryzewski has faced it, and he’s entering this game with far superior talent. The one interesting factor at play is that Duke has recently taken to playing exclusively zone itself, and if anybody should know how to attack that defense, it’s Boeheim. Syracuse’s tournament voodoo always gives them a chance, but it would take a pretty poor performance from the Blue Devils for the Orange to pull off another shocker here. I’ll take Duke.
RCT: BONUS - What was/is your favorite video game of all-time (any platform)?
Goldeneye on N64. No question.
A huge thanks to Jay for helping us out with these extremely thorough answers. Don’t forget to check out my less informative answers to his questions over in Shakin the Southland.