I think I can speak for most Arkansas fans when I say we don't know just a whole lot about the Clemson basketball program. Other than Trevor and Devin Booker, I couldn't name a Tiger player, past or present. Nonetheless, we have what you need to familiarize yourself with Saturday's foe.
Clemson's trip to Bud Walton Arena on Saturday will be their first game outside of the state of South Carolina this season, and will enter with a 7-1 mark and two neutral site wins under their belt. The only loss comes to a solid UMass squad that beat LSU earlier in the year. They also own the nation's fourth best scoring defense. The Tigers should be a good test for the Razorbacks.
And to prep for the best game the Razorbacks will play in the month of December, I caught up with Ryan Kantor, a contributing writer for the Clemson SB Nation site Shakin' the Southland to preview Saturday's matchup with the Tigers and get a feel for their team and program this season.
AF: I guess I'll start by saying that I, with all due respect, don't know much about Clemson basketball other than Devin and Trevor Booker used to played there, and a majority of Hog fans probably don't even know that. So, what's something Arkansas fans might find interesting about the program? And what can we expect to see from the Tigers on Saturday as far as style of play goes?
STS: Clemson is most certainly a football school (gets pat on the back from other red-blooded Americans), but that doesn’t mean we don’t support basketball or have some interesting tidbits from our years in the most storied conference in college basketball. We don’t have a ton of players currently in the NBA (though Trevor Booker is still on Washington), but there is a little history with getting our post players to the next level. Horace Grant, Elden Campbell, Dale Davis, and Tree Rollins are Clemson alumni.
More recently, Oliver Purnell was our coach through the 2009-2010 season. Back then, Clemson was known for their full-court press. We ran it to success making the tournament four consecutive years. In fact, the senior class of 2011 (luckily, my year) was the first in school history to make the NCAA tournament all four years. Purnell eventually left Clemson for DePaul where he’s since been relatively unsuccessful.
He may have left the program in better shape than he found it, but he departed at an awkward time of year causing us to essentially miss one-and-a-half recruiting classes. Most of Purnell’s last class transferred out once he left. Milton Jennings (a five-star recruit) and Devin Booker stayed, but never displayed the consistency, maturity, or leadership the team needed. Because of this poorly timed transition, Clemson has no seniors and it’s generally agreed upon that our current coach was dealt a tough hand and has done fairly well to put it back together. Brad Brownell took over after Purnell and made the NCAA Tournament in year one, but has seen the talent level decrease each season and they really bottomed out last season finishing with just 13 wins.
This year, you can expect phenomenal defense for the entirety of the shot clock. The persistence is nagging and wearing on the opposition. The perimeter defense is great, but what’s been so impressive is the shot blocking. Despite graduating their starting center and power forward, Clemson is top 10 in the nation in blocked shots and blocks per game, averaging 7.6 per contest. Last year’s paltry results aside, things are starting to trend in the right direction, recruiting is finally picking up steam, and there is once again reason for optimism.
AF: KJ McDaniels seems to be THE guy for Clemson this season, leading the team in scoring. Just how much does he mean to this team? And who else should Arkansas take note of?
STS: Earlier this week we saw what this team looks like when McDaniels plays poorly and it wasn’t pretty. It took 15 minutes for Clemson to claim their first lead of the night over SC State. That’s atypical though. Unless Arkansas comes out in a zone defense, expect McDaniels to attack the basket. He’s improved this offseason in that now he can make the mid-range jumper or even the three if that’s what the defense is giving him. On top of that, he’s a dominant defender. Should Michael Qualls and K.J. McDaniels matchup, it’ll be a fun afternoon.
If K.J. is off, Devin Coleman is a young player who is emerging as that "next guy." He missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon and was forced to redshirt. The RS sophomore earned his first start of his career in the game against SC State. He scored 16 points and has one of the quickest releases of any shooter I’ve ever seen. He’s been very streaky in limited minutes this season, but is starting to show the pre-injury form we were hoping to see.
AF: Looking through the Tigers' stats, a couple of things really stick out. For one, your defense gives up only 51 points per game on average. Bo Ryan is impressed. Secondly, opponents shoot only 21 percent from deep. Is this team's defense its staple and something it really prides itself on and counts on?
STS: Clemson basketball is all about stellar defense these days. Rod Hall, our starting point guard, is a physical and reliable defender, and K.J. McDaniels is probably the best shot blocking wing player in the country. Although we don’t press like we did in the past, we hound opposing guards as much as the ridiculous new hand-checking rules will allow. Defense is most certainly this team’s strength and if we can force you to execute a half-court offense, we have the advantage. That’s why tempo will be so important in this one.
AF: If Clemson has one glaring weakness, what would it be? What is something Arkansas might be able to take advantage of?
STS: Inexperience, especially in the post. We have no seniors on the roster and start a sophomore and RS freshman at the #5 and #4 spots respectively.
Starting Center, Landy Nnoko, is hot and cold. He’s not much of an offensive threat, but is coming off the best game of his young career where he posted 13 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks. He was seldom used last season and is getting his first taste of meaningful playing time this season. We’re already seeing his progression. Josh Smith, his backup is also a sophomore. He too is hot and cold. Sometimes he looks lost, other times he does a great job in his role.
At power forward, Clemson starts one of my favorite players, Redshirt Freshman Jaron Blossomgame. He’s a high-character kid from suburban Atlanta, and we’re thrilled to see him on the court after he suffered essentially the same injury as Kevin Ware during his senior year of high school and missed all of last season. He’s more of a face-up-four. Behind him is Ibrahim Djambo, a JUCO transfer playing for the first time at this level.
This group has been better than expected and is showing great progression this season, however teams that can exploit our inexperience and lack of depth up front, like UMass (our lone loss this season), have the best chance to beat us.
AF: Prediction time. First, how do you see Saturday's game playing out? Secondly, where do Dabo and the football team end up bowling this year?
It'll depend largely on tempo and the play of the Arkansas bigs. If Arkansas is able to dominate in the paint as UMass was, it’ll be a miserable trip for the Tigers. However if Nnoko plays like he did in the second half of our last game, Clemson could most definitely win this one. KenPom gives Clemson a 44% chance to win this one, so I’ll take the Razorbacks, but it should be very close and I wouldn’t write off the Tigers. It’s essentially a toss-up.
I projected Clemson to accept a bid to the Discover Orange Bowl where they’d play Alabama (or Ohio State if the Buckeyes lose to Michigan State). If not, it’s a return to the Chick-fil-A Bowl where we could face Johnny Football. I have absolutely no interest in that. Here’s to hoping the Orange Bowl stays in the ACC! Go Tigers!