Game of the Week: No. 1 North Carolina at No. 19 Clemson (Sunday, January 6, 7:30 PM, FSN)
With 2007 finally in our rear view mirror and conference play around the country really heating up this week, the best part of the college basketball season has already hit the ground running. Most teams have only played one or two league games so far, but many squads are prepared to separate themselves from the pack. For several major-conference teams, that means road games, no more cupcakes and generally stiffer competition. This week features several big-time match-ups, including plenty of quality contests in the Pac-10 and the Big East, as well as some interesting non-conference games. The best of the weekend, though, features a Final Four favorite heading on the road for its toughest test of the season so far.
North Carolina came into the season as one of the top candidates for preseason No. 1 and the national championship – and it has not disappointed so far. The Tar Heels are 14-0, a record that includes wins over nearly every type of team in the country. Roy Williams’ crew has defeated perennial NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Ohio State); top mid-majors (Davidson, Kent State, Valparaiso); and quality west coast teams (Nevada, BYU, UC Santa Barbara). You can’t say UNC hasn’t been tested yet. The Tar Heels are the top-ranked team in offensive efficiency and are ranked No. 33 in defensive efficiency. North Carolina is led by one of the best players in the country, junior big man Tyler Hansbrough. The All-America is a dominant big man who has taken his game to another level this season, scoring at least 20 points in all but three games this year. He is an efficient scorer who is also a relentless rebounder. In the backcourt are sophomore Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Lawson might be the fastest end-to-end player in college basketball, while Ellington is a premier shooter who provides outside balance for Hansbrough. Danny Green, a very good three-point shooter and scorer, and lockdown defender Marcus Ginyard split time on the wing. Starting next to Hansbrough down low is sophomore Deon Thompson. He averaged 10 points, eight rebounds and more than three blocks per game in the three contests leading up to the Kent State game. The bench has been depleted lately, as guard Bobby Frasor tore a ligament in his knee last week and will miss the rest of the season, while Quentin Thomas injured his left ankle and has missed the last two games. Furthermore, big man Alex Stepheson missed the Kent State game for an illness in his family back in California.
In what seems to be a recurring theme for Clemson, the Tigers got off to yet another hot start, starting 10-0 this season. It was the third year in a row that Clemson began a season with at least 10 straight wins. However, the Tigers are looking to turn this season’s great start into an NCAA Tournament berth – something the previous two teams couldn’t do. Clemson’s lone loss was a three-point defeat at the hands of unbeaten Mississippi in Puerto Rico, but the Tigers own wins over Mississippi State, Alabama, Purdue and South Carolina. They are ranked No. 30 in offensive efficiency and No. 16 in defensive efficiency. Clemson is a deep and balanced team, with nine players averaging at least 11 minutes per game but only one getting more than 30. Guard K.C. Rivers leads the way. Last year’s sixth man extraordinaire has been excellent in the starting lineup, scoring in double-figures in every game this year. He is flanked on the perimeter by freshman point guard Demontez Stitt, who has improved with every game, and senior Cliff Hammonds, an all-around solid player who takes care of the ball. Sixth man Terrence Oglesby ranks second on the team in scoring and is averaging 17 points per game in his last six contests, despite playing just 20.3 minutes per game. Up front, athletic big man James Mays and physical rebounder Trevor Booker start. Mays contributes more than numbers – although they are impressive. He is at the top of the team’s press and changes the game defensively. Booker is a beast on the glass and has also shown the ability to score. Raymond Sykes has shown potential off the bench, while Jerai Grant also provides depth. Wing David Potter might be the team’s best three-point shooter.
What a way to kick off conference play in the ACC. Both teams are expected to finish in the upper third of the league, with North Carolina projected to win the conference and Clemson in the three-to-five range. Not only is this game filled with quality players and teams, though, it is going to be fun to watch. Both teams like to play up-tempo basketball and love to create easy transition points with their defense. Clemson traps from the opening tip and thrives off chaos and turnovers, while North Carolina has plenty of athletes and can get from defense-to-offense faster and more efficiently than anyone in the country.
If Clemson is going to hold serve on its homecourt and knock off the unbeaten Tar Heels, it needs to limit North Carolina’s transition offense. Ty Lawson loves to push the ball off made and missed baskets and can find the open man with ease. Wayne Ellington and Marcus Ginyard are constantly running on the wings and often get uncontested lay-ups. Freshman Demontez Stitt can get rattled and turn the ball over against Lawson; he needs to get Clemson into its offense and force North Carolina to defend the Tigers in the half-court. Also, getting North Carolina into foul trouble is key. With all the aforementioned injuries and absences, the Tar Heels aren’t as deep as usual. Making Roy Williams go to his bench early would help Clemson in a major way. Defensively, it needs to force turnovers and get easy baskets off them. If the extremely quick Lawson consistently breaks the press, it will be lay-ups and dunks galore all day for North Carolina.
On the other side, the Tar Heels have to get the ball inside early and often to Tyler Hansbrough. He has the ability to dominate James Mays and Trevor Booker, as well as get them in foul trouble. On the perimeter, Danny Green and Ellington need to knock down their three-point shots. Clemson is going to have to double-team Hansbrough – Green and Ellington need to make the Tigers pay. Furthermore, Lawson needs to handle Clemson’s press and get North Carolina into its offense. Constantly turning the ball over in the backcourt would be a nightmare for the Tar Heels, as Clemson lives off its defense and momentum. The difference, despite Clemson having the homecourt advantage, is going to be Ty Lawson’s ability to break the Tigers’ break with his quickness and passing ability, and Tyler Hansbrough’s dominance inside. Clemson likely won’t be able to handle Hansbrough down low, and will also struggle to score if it can’t get points off turnovers. Expect plenty of points, though.
Prediction: North Carolina 88, Clemson 83