9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Louisville -7.5, Over/Under: 137.5
As the Atlantic Coast Conference is shaping up to become one of the stronger basketball leagues in recent memory, it’s denizens have unsurprisingly found navigating through it’s murky waters an easy task by any means, including tonight’s participants as the Twelfth-Ranked Louisville Cardinals host the struggling Clemson Tigers. Perhaps no team in the ACC personifies the difference between non-conference competition and conference competition more so than Clemson (11-6, 1-4 in ACC), who after a surprising 10-2 start to the campaign have since lost four of their first five games in conference play. In fact, ever since opening with a 73-68 victory at Wake Forest, Brad Brownell’s charges have dropped four straight contests, most of which came by the narrowest of margins. First it was an 89-86 loss at home to North Carolina in Overtime, followed four days later by a 75-70 defeat on the road at Notre Dame, and later by 75-63 thumping at Georgia Tech. Then there was last Saturday’s 77-73 failure against Virginia, which coincidentally dropped them to a disappointing Thirteenth in the ACC. With the score squared away at thirty-six points apiece at Halftime, the home side utterly flopped in their efforts to slow down the typically-slow Cavaliers, who shot a blistering 58.0% from the field, including 10-of-18 from beyond the arc (55.6%), despite dishing out just nine assists. Anytime a team shoots that well without great ball movement, it’s typically an indictment on the other team’s defense, which was so poor that it altogether spoiled a rather solid offensive showing themselves, as the Tigers knocked down 50.0% of their attempts, while assisting on thirteen of their twenty-eight Field Goals. Jaron Bossomgame (18.2 PTS, 51.7% FG, 6.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.2 BLK) again led them with twenty-two points on a white-hot 10-of-14 shooting from the floor (71.4%), while totaling six rebounds, a pair of assists, and a block, while the sharpshooting Avry Holmes (11.3 PTS, 39.9% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.2 STL) added another fifteen points on 4-of-6 shooting (66.7), with half of his points coming via the Three-Point Line (2-of-3, 66.7%), with Gabe DeVoe (9.8 PTS, 41.4% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.6 STL) contributing with fifteen points of his own off the Bench, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals. Since entering league play, Clemson has taken a noticeable nosedive on the offensive end of the court, where they rank towards the bottom of the conference in most categories; the Tigers have scored 73.0 points (10th in ACC) on 45.5% shooting from the floor (7th in ACC), including 36.7% from beyond the arc (11th in ACC), while dishing out 13.4 assists (11th in ACC). Though Brownell urges these guys to push the ball when they can, it hasn’t really parleyed into the necessary results, for more attempts for Clemson unfortunately means even more shots for the opposition. However, the biggest issue with this group is that they tend to fall in love with the mid to long-range jumper a little too often; the Tigers have attempted an average of 38.0 shots inside the arc (12th in ACC), while jacking up 109 three-pointers (5th in ACC). Unfortunately, teams that launch a bevvy of jumpers rarely get to the Free-Throw Line either, which is yet another problem for these guys, particularly when they face good defenses that don’t, you know, foul; the Tigers have attempted just 16.0 Free-Throws per Game in league play, fourth-fewest out of fifteen teams, while netting just 10.6 of them, third-fewest in the ACC.
Meanwhile, it just so happens that the team that they’re about to face, is only one of the best defensive teams in not just the ACC, but in the entire country. Simply put, Louisville (15-3, 3-2 in ACC) has been absolutely stifling on the defensive end this season; Rick Pitino’s charges have yielded just 62.3 points (17th Overall) on a mere 37.9% shooting from the field (8th Overall), including 47.1% from within the three-point arc (15th Overall) and 29.0% from beyond it (10th Overall), while blocking 6.6 shots (5th Overall) and forcing 15.4 turnovers (65th Overall). The Cardinals have a plethora of size and length, as they flood passing lanes and contend virtually everything, particularly at the rim. Pitino does a tremendous job of rotating his Bigs, so that they can avoid getting into foul trouble while remaining aggressive from end to end. Raymond Spalding (6.9 PTS, 64.1% FG, 5.6 REB, 1.0 BLK), Jaylen Johnson (8.0 PTS, 60.0% FG, 6.5 REB, 0.9 BLK), Anas Mahmoud (6.5 PTS, 61.2% FG, 4.1 REB, 2.5 BLK), and Mangok Mathiang (5.5 PTS, 43.8% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.2 BLK) are nightmares in the Paint, while all the Guards can gamble with pressure knowing that they’re protected in the Frontcourt. Just take their most recent outing, a 78-69 victory over Duke last Saturday for example, in which the hosts gradually wore down the visiting Blue Devils. Louisville completely disrupted Duke’s typically efficient offensive attack, relegating the visitors to a scant eight assists while harassing them into eighteen turnovers, particularly getting under the skin of the polarizing Greyson Allen, who coughed up the rock a staggering six times. Furthermore, the Devils were all but snuffed out from three, where they could only manage to knock down 5-of-12 attempts (41.7%), while conversely, the hos enjoyed one of their better offensive performances of the campaign. The home side shot 47.5% from the field, while having their way with their opponent in the painted area, where they hit on 52.5% of their attempts. Most gratifying for Pitino, was the fact that his charges managed to assist on healthy sixteen of their twenty-eight Field Goals, while all those turnovers helped ignite their transition attack granting them easier shots. At the end of the day, four starters finished in double-figures scoring, led by the aforementioned Mohmoud, whose seven-foot frame created havoc for the Blue Devils totaling seventeen points on 6-of-9 shooting (66.7%), eleven rebounds, a steal, and a pair of blocks. Donovan Mitchell (13.6 PTS, 37.6% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 2.5 AST, 2.2 STL) and Quentin Snider (12.1 PTS, 37.0% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 4.0 AST) added another fifteen and thirteen points respectfully, with the latter accounting for a team-high six assists. The pair of Guards were largely responsible for the entirety of the Cardinals’ production from downtown, accounting for all but one of their team’s seven Three-Pointers. Again, this was definitely a welcome sign for a team that has had to rely on it’s defensive prowess to help generate their offense, for this is NOT on of Pitino’s better scoring teams. As you saw earlier, both of their leading scorers are sub 40.0% shooters from the field, who when not scoring in transition are often launching bombs from beyond the arc. Louisville ranks twelfth or worse in a myriad of offensive categories in conference play, averaging just 70.2 points (12th in ACC) on 43.0% shooting from the field (13th in ACC), including 46.9% from within the three-point arc (12th Overall) and 34.4% beyond it (14th in ACC), while dishing out 12.6 assists (13th in ACC, and shooting a poor 63.8% from the Charity Stripe (12th in ACC). This is a team that’s built to grind out close games, but they will need to show some considerable growth offensively if they are to be truly considered contenders come March.