ACC Basketball

Clemson No Cupcake for Duke

Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

After rolling to 14-0, the Duke Blue Devils stumbled in ACC play, getting crushed in back-to-back games by NC State (road) and Miami (home). However, since that time they have won nine of 10, six straight and have one of the most impressive resumes in all of college basketball, going 9-2 in Ken Pom’s top-50 rankings, including road wins at Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia. They are coming off a stunning 10-point comeback win in overtime (92-90) against their rival North Carolina. Barring any upsets to inferior foes, the Blue Devils should have a 1-seed locked up.

The Clemson Tigers struggled out of the gate, losing two of their first three to Winthrop and Gardner Webb, then later to Rutgers. They did manage to pull off a couple of nice wins over the SEC, beating LSU, Arkansas and Auburn. Yet, midway though the ACC schedule, they sat at 10-8, 2-4 in the conference. Eventually though, Brad Brownell’s club tightened up their already good defense and won four straight. Suddenly two games above .500 in the ACC, the Tigers bandwagon was pulled out of the garage, ready for a good dusting. Yet, when the competition got tougher, Clemson’s winning ways came to an end, as they have dropped three of four, beating only Virginia Tech. The bandwagon has been put away and the only way the Tigers make the tournament is by going undefeated in the regular season (or winning the ACC Tournament).

Duke and Clemson have not met yet in 2014-15, but if you recall, last year the Blue Devils really struggled against the Tigers. In their first meeting, Clemson owned Duke, beating them at home, 72-59. The Tigers defense held the Blue Devils to 33% shooting from the field, holding two future pros, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, to 12-29 from the floor. Quinn Cook was particularly bad, hitting 3-14 from the floor, 1-7 from deep.

The teams met again in the ACC Tournament where the Tigers again gave Duke more than they wanted. With a pair of free throws, Rodney Hood gave the Blue Devils the lead 63-62 in the final seconds, but as Rod Hall drove to the basket with 3.8 seconds remaining, a controversial no-call on a Ty Thornton steal ended the game. The loss was a painful one for Clemson, because with that win, there was a good chance the Tigers would have received a NCAA Tournament invite with a second win over Duke (they would have been 21-11), instead of going to the N.I.T.


  • For Duke, there is no doubt this year’s team is not last year’s team. This squad has more talent, but they also have a tendency to play down to their competition. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Florida State all kept it close against Duke and with the exception of the Wake game, the Blue Devils were coming off huge wins before they found themselves in a dogfight with a team they should easily beat. Duke can’t sleep on the Tigers. Like Virginia (but not as efficient), Clemson will slow things down to a crawl, rarely shooting with more than 15 seconds on the shot clock. If Duke get lulled asleep, they could struggled yet again.
  • In the interior, the Blue Devils have the one and only Jahlil Okafor, the future number one pick in the draft. When faced with one-on-one defense, the Duke freshmen is unstoppable, a man-child with more inside moves than most already playing in the pros. Yet, he did turn his ankle against North Carolina. After that, he didn’t play awful, dishing out a couple nice assists, attacking the glass and he did have a couple of nice offensive moves for buckets. Yet, that ankle has had a couple days to swell up. I’m curious to see how he’s moving on it Saturday. Outside of Okafor though, Duke only has Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee inside. Coach K also has the option to go small with Justise Winslow at the four, but defensively I think Duke struggles too much with that smaller lineup. Despite his flaws, Jefferson is the best option along side Okafor at least until the final minutes of the game.
  • For Clemson, it’s all about defense. And then some more defense. When the Tigers win, they shutdown their opponent. In their last six wins, their defensive efficiency rating has sat below 90 (if it’s below 100, that’s usually good enough). They are 3rd in the conference in 3P%, fourth in Steal% and number two overall defensively in the ACC. Yet, defending inside is what they do better than anyone. Landry Nnoko is the muscle in the middle. He almost has the ability to handle Okafor alone in the paint. He’s tough to move and he’s a solid shot blocker. The Tigers are a team filled with long athletic men. They disrupt passing lanes and clog the middle with their tree like limbs. Both NNoko (5th) and Donte Grantham sit in the top-20 in block percentage. The latter lives off off weak-side help and the one most likely to double up the paint. Look for the Tigers to attack Okafor when he gets the ball on the low post.
  • “Run Duke run” should be the motto for this Duke team in the second half of the season. The Blue Devils have done a lot better job of pushing both missed and made baskets up the court quickly. It helps to have two point guards on the floor, but Tyus Jones is the real reason for the more aggressive style. He’s so good at not turning it over (when he does, it’s typically when he’s trying to make the spectacular pass), plus he’s such a good decision maker. He seems to know where his guys are before they even know where they should be. If the Blue Devils want to avoid a slow start, they’ll need to push early and get the energy in the gym up. Plus, if you want to avoid facing a great half court defense, don’t let them get set up in their half court defense.
  • Since putting Jordan Roper back into the starting lineup, Clemson has won five of eight games and when the junior has found his stroke, the Tigers win. He’s averaged 17.6 in their last five victories. However, when he struggles, they lose as he’s just 8-28 from the floor in their last three loses, 2-10 from deep. That is where the problem lies…from behind the arc. Clemson has a handful of guys capable of hitting from deep (Hall, Roper, Damarcus Harrison, Jaron Blossomgame and even Grantham), but none of them are consistent and none hit 35% or better. The Blue Devils have no such problem. With Cook, Jones and Winslow, they have three guys who hit 38% or better from deep. Better yet, all four are ball handles and won’t be afraid to attack the Clemson trees.

FINAL THOUGHT: I’m not a big fan of the “lack of depth” theory. I don’t care that Coach K only plays about seven players (although Grayson Allen should see some good minutes this weekend). Against Carolina, the Tar Heels were certainly deeper, but in the end, it was the Blue Devils with more energy. I won’t be surprised if Clemson keeps it close, especially if Grantham attacks Duke inside when they go to a smaller lineup, but Duke will prevail because they are at home, so the shots will fall. Quinn Cook will bother Jordan Roper all game long and I like Winslow guarding Blossomgame on the wing.


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