If someone sets the over/under on total points scored Tuesday night when No. 16 Virginia hosts Clemson at 110, and you read this entire blog post, and you still take the over, well, you won’t find any pity here.
In all likelihood, offense will not be in abundance at John Paul Jones Arena tonight because the Cavaliers (17-3, 4-2 ACC) and the Tigers (11-9, 3-3) employ defense-oriented systems that very often cause the games in which they play to be low on possessions.
Only three teams in the nation average fewer possessions per game than Virginia (60.6), and Clemson averages just 64.3 possessions per game, which ranks No. 2 in the ACC. The Cavaliers and Tigers also rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the conference in scoring defense. Neither team is allowing opponents to average 60 points per game.
“Possessions are hard to come by” on Tuesday, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said Monday. “I know that both of us want to make each other work for real quality possessions or quality shots.”
That certainly was the case when these two squads met in Charlottesville last year. Virginia won that game, 49-47, and the way the contest played out was about as artistic as the final score suggests. Each team had roughly 57 possessions that night; the game’s tempo was slow, to say the least. Neither squad shot 40 percent from the field, but they did combine for 28 turnovers.
For the sake of everyone watching Tuesday night’s game, let’s hope the quality of offense isn’t quite that bad this time around. Though, again, I wouldn’t bet on it, in large part because both teams’ defenses are solid.
Virginia is tied with North Carolina for No. 2 in the ACC in field goal percentage defense and sit alone at No. 2 in the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense. The Cavaliers are allowing opponents to shoot 38.8 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from three-point range this season. In fact, only three teams in the country have better guarded against three-point shooting than Virginia this year.
Whereas the Cavaliers’ defensive strategy is defined by its compactness, Clemson’s defense tends to be a little more outwardly aggressive. The Tigers are averaging 7.2 steals per game, which ranks No. 4 in the conference. No two ACC players have averaged more steals per game in conference play than Clemson guards Andre Young (2.5) and Tanner Smith (2.3). Clemson’s opponents are averaging 14.8 turnovers per game; among ACC schools, only Florida State’s opponents are turning the ball over more often.
On the flip side, Virginia is averaging the fewest number of turnovers per game (11.2) this season of any team in the conference, and Clemson Coach Brad Brownell understands that only will make the challenge of tallying points more difficult Tuesday night.
“They’re hard to score against for a couple reasons,” Brownell said Monday. “Number one, there aren’t as many possessions. The game is going to be a little shorter. Number two, they don’t turn the ball over much, so it’s hard to get any easy baskets against them. They do a great job of transition defense. They take care of the ball. They usually take quality shots on offense. They don’t take very many wild shots that lead to long rebounds in just transition situations, so you’re always going against their five-man defense.”
One key to gaining some offensive momentum for Virginia will be improving its effort on the offensive glass. The Cavaliers won, 61-60, Saturday night at North Carolina State despite being out-rebounded, 42-25. N.C. State owned an 18-5 edge in offensive boards, as well as a 17-7 advantage in second chance points.
Last year, Clemson out-rebounded Virginia, 39-31, overall and 18-7 on the offensive glass. The Tigers outscored Virginia in second chance points, 14-8, and return two of their top three rebounders from that night. Forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings are combining to average 12.5 rebounds per game in ACC play this season.
However, Jennings won’t play Tuesday after being suspended indefinitely on Monday for academic reasons. He did not travel with Clemson to Charlottesville, according to the Charleston Post & Courier .
It should be noted that thus far in conference play, Virginia owns a better rebounding margin (plus-3.3) than Clemson (negative-1.7). However, that doesn’t mean Bennett is content with how the Cavaliers have been performing on the boards of late.
On Saturday, N.C. State forward Richard Howell tallied 18 rebounds (9 offensive), and that did not sit well with Virginia’s coach. Bennett understands the Cavaliers might not survive another such rebounding effort Tuesday. It doesn’t help Virginia that 7-foot senior center Assane Sene is out until at least early March with an ankle injury.
“It’s not just technique, go block out,” Bennett said. “There’s a point where you’ve got to do that, but then you have to go and pursue the ball and come up with it. That’s where we were certainly – [Howell] outworked us. He got to the balls. We were just a half a step behind and not ready.
“Certainly, we’re not as big without Assane in there to take up some of that size and cover up, but that’s where we have to be more efficient or more effective with everybody rebounding and everybody doing it the right way. That’s something that you just have to emphasize and keep trying to get better at it.”