CORAL GABLES, FL - JANUARY 18: Andre Young #11 of the Clemson Tigers drives during a game against the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes on January 18, 2012 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
If the Maryland Terrapins are ever going to win a road game, now would be a good time to do it. Maryland's riding a two-game losing streak heading into their Tuesday road trip to Clemson, with a game against Duke at Cameron Indoor on the horizon. Drop this one against the Tigers, and there's a very good chance Maryland will suffer their first four-game losing streak since 2004-05 - a streak that, incidentally featured two losses to Clemson.
As a side note, the Terrapins might not have a much better chance to get a road win than this: their only remaining road contests will come against Duke, UVA, UNC, and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are the worst of the bunch, to be sure, but again: drop this one, and that might be the only one Maryland can win.
Clemson, for their part, is a difficult side to judge. Their 3-5 ACC record appears middling at best; so does their non-conference showing, which includes no RPI top-100 wins and losses to College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina, South Carolina, UTEP, and Hawaii - the first three of those, for what it's worth, coming on their own floor.
And yet, if you dig a little deeper, they appear to have tightened things up. They absolutely crushed Florida State in Littlejohn - even though that came before the light came on for the Noles, it's still a particularly impressive showing. That was inexplicably followed by a loss to Boston College, which is probably inexcusable, but their other four conference losses - Duke at home and Miami, Virginia, and Virginia Tech on the road - were all close games (biggest loss was Duke by only six) and entirely acceptable showings. In fact, they were impressive, in their own sort of way. Clemson may not be a great team, but they're a scrappy one who haven't been an easy out for anyone. They certainly won't be one for Maryland.
The Tigers enter this game with a two-game losing streak, but it easily could've been a four-game winning streak instead; they defeated both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest at home (by similar margins as Maryland) before losing star forward Milton Jennings to academic suspension and dropping subsequent road games at Virginia (by only four) and Virginia Tech (by only two). I don't think Clemson was a better team in either game and in fact made good use of late runs to make the scoreline close, but the point stands that they were just points away from entering today in a very good position. Instead, they, like Maryland, find their season starting to teeter.
Jennings, a 6-9 power forward, was one of Clemson's better players in terms of talent, and wasn't far behind in production, averaging about nine points and five boards a game. In his absence, they'll have to rely more heavily on their remaining frontcourt players to eat up another 25 minutes a game or so. They do have some frontcourt quality, for what it's worth: 6-8 junior Devin Booker has proven to be effective as a space-eating center, averaging 11 points and 7 boards per game, but they don't have that much quality depth behind him. The main players expected to pick up the slack will be some combination of 7-1 senior Catalin Baciu, scrappy and begoggled 6-6 senior Bryan Narcisse, and inexperienced 6-7 freshman Bernard Sullivan - a former Maryland target, for what it's worth.
Narcisse, arguably the goofiest-looking player in college basketball, will start in Jennings' place; he works hard and has some great athleticism, which helps make up for his height, but is a far cry from the vastly more skilled (and three-inches-taller) Jennings. Baciu, a giant Romanian who's never averaged even four minutes per game in his past three years in Clemson, has seen his playing time jump from about 9mpg this year to 20mpg in the last two games. He's a truer replacement for Jennings, and you'd think Clemson would have to play him major minutes to counteract the height of Alex Len. If not, it'll be intriguing to see just how much confidence Len has; he's a good five inches taller than Booker (and vastly more athletic), and seven taller than Narcisse. That's a massive size differential, but we've seen him struggle in that area in the past. I'd almost rather see an Eastern Bloc battle, where Len's superior athleticism and skill will be most pronounced.
The good news for Clemson is that they're definitely more of a guard-oriented team. The team's undoubted leader is 5-9 senior point guard Andre Young. The pint-sized Young is a classic waterbug; I see him as basically what Aquille Carr can be in college, if Carr matures properly. (More likely, Carr will continue to be his Crime Stopper self: way more sensational, but also less productive.) Young is very quick, pesky, and steady: he plays nearly 35 minutes per game, averages only a turnover a game, leads Clemson with 13.6 ppg, and has the fifth-highest offensive rating in the conference.
The other big piece is Tanner Smith, also eminently pesky. The 6-5 senior is probably more of a real point guard for Clemson than Young is, leading the team with four assists per game and only two turnovers. Smith's a do-everything type: in addition to the four assists, he's putting up 11 points and 5 boards, in addition to being their best on-ball perimeter defender. He's a half-decent three-point shooter, too; he went 0-5 from deep against VT, but is shooting 37% from trey on the year.
The final piece of the starting five is K.J. McDaniels, a 6-6 freshman wing who's been a very pleasant surprise this year and just had a breakout game of the highest order against Virginia Tech. There's a whole host of guard depth, with a trio of 6-2 freshmen - Devin Coleman, T.J. Sapp, and Rod Hall - all coming off the bench. Of the three, Sapp and Hall are the most important and effective, but neither have developed into standout sixth-men just yet.
Clemson's biggest strength is their vastly underrated defense. It's not quite the same helter-skelter look that's given Maryland fits in the recent past, but they still play a tight and intense man-to-man look that's especially good at forcing turnovers. Young and Smith both have quick hands and like to jab at the ball, making them two of the best steal men in the country; Maryland will presumably want Pe'Shon Howard and Terrell Stoglin handling the ball most of the time, and being more careful with it than they usually are. (Remember Howard against Miami in the first half?)
But Clemson's defense is all-around a solid unit: not only are they second in the conference in TO%, they post respectable numbers in defensive rebounding, eFG%, and not allowing free throws, too. (Of course, that latter point may be entirely irrelevant given the ease with which Maryland can get to the line, which I expect will only get easier as more and more refs grow to appreciate Terrell Stoglin's scoring ability.)
That said, I'll be really interested to see just how much losing Jennings has affected them. Jennings was the best rebounder and best shot-blocker on the team; losing a force on the low block has to hurt their all-around defensive effort. It's started to show up in their stats, just a bit; they're averaging .95 points allowed per possession, a figure that jumped to 1.13 over the past two games - and you'd figure it'd be much, much higher if not for that late defense-fueled comeback in Blacksburg. This bunch might be ripe for the taking, especially in the interior. We've been saying it all year, I feel, but Maryland really should look to attack the paint in this one, both dumping the ball into the post and through penetration (Terrell Stoglin and Nick Faust in particular). Easier said than done when you're covered by guys like Young and Smith, but a worthy cause nonetheless.
Offensively, Clemson is merely average. Young is crafty and productive, but his size is a limiting factor and doesn't let him take over a game. Smith, similarly, is solid, but not a lot more. I feel like this a team of Sean Mosleys. There's a lot of experience, which means few turnovers and good offensive rebounding, but I'm not sure there's a pure scorer on the entire roster, let alone a proven scorer. Jennings had that potential, but had never realized it and now isn't even active.
The best news: they're not a threat as a team in regards to three-pointers. Every team is to some extent, of course, but Clemson is 10th in the conference in three-point shooting percentage and lacks a sniper like Terrell Stoglin. That's a good sign, usually.
First reaction: totally winnable game. Whether it's a game Maryland will win, we've learned, is almost impossible to predict, but Clemson doesn't intimidate me, especially not without Jennings at the 4 spot. They have one really impressive win - the FSU demolition - but that largely seems an aberration: they shot almost 50% from the field against FSU, a mark they haven't reached sense despite that being against one of the best defenses in the country. This one screams "tough, scrappy game", and both sides have been on the losing end of those in recent weeks. It's gonna be a fight, but we'll see if Maryland has developed mentally enough to come away with it.
And let's end on a big-picture side note: looking through Clemson's roster, I'm starting to fear for Brad Brownell's job security. They were good last year, but it looks like they'll miss the tourney this year. And if you look at what happens next year: they lose Young, Smith, Narcisse, and very possibly Jennings. The end result is Devin Booker and literally everyone else being either a freshman or sophomore - and none of those freshmen/sophomores are highly-regarded, save Mitchell. It could get ugly in Littlejohn next season.
Anyway, that being the case, all the more reason for Clemson to fight for whatever they can get. Make no mistake, both of these teams are looking at this as an easily-winnable opportunity for a critical win, and they'll be scrapping it out. Things might get pretty darn intense on Tuesday. (Oh, lazy folks: game's at 7:00 on ESPNU.)