The Clemson Tigers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, two of the hottest teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, are poised to clash on Wednesday night, with the latter hosting the highly-anticipated fixture at South Bend, Indiana.
Clemson goes into the match having won five of their last six games, including road victories against Virginia and NC State, while the Fighting Irish have won five straight and have won all six of their home games so far.
This promises to be one of the more entertaining clashes of the season, with things winding down to March Madness and the wild March Madness betting that typically accompanies.
“When I glance at their stats, I’m taken back by the shooting percentages, especially their 3-point percentage,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey was quoted as saying ahead of the game. “(Clemson coach) Brad (Brownell) has always been a defensive guy and has done a fabulous job. He can really coach defense.
“But now I’m looking and on the other end of the floor they’re really efficient offensively, handle the ball well, and they’ve got big guys like (P.J.) Hall who can step out away from the bucket and make shots. They’re older, they know how to play, they’ve won on the road — those are all the things that will keep me up at night.”
The Tigers were tipped to finish 11th in the ACC preseason poll but rank third nationally at 40.9 and lead the ACC in three-point shooting. Notre Dame, meanwhile, leads the division in three-point field goals per game at 9.14 and makes 36.5 percent as a team.
“Everywhere you look they’ve got an older guy, an experienced player,” Brownell said of Notre Dame. “Those guys are so poised and they’ve really hit their stride. They’re playing great basketball now.
“You start watching their film from the last two weeks and they look considerably more comfortable.”
Dane Goodwin, a senior, leads Notre Dame’s scoring with an average of 15.0 points a game. However, freshman Blake Wesley’s play has been the most impactful factor for the Fighting Irish as of late.
Wesley only trails Goodwin in scoring, with 14.3 per contest, and posted 22 to help fire Notre Dame to a 72-68 overtime win over Georgia Tech on the weekend.
“He’s super talented, incredibly athletic, fast, really a tough cover,” Brownell offered. “He’s given them a jolt of athleticism. He’s a fantastic freshman. Athletically he looks like a junior and the confidence he plays with is tremendous. He’s playing with other good players who are older and that helps him, too.”
The Tigers have a good senior crop too but sophomore Hall is now their most dependable scorer and has gone 14 consecutive games scoring in double figures. He dropped 20 in a win over NC State this past Saturday.
“The better he’s played, the more confident our team around him has gotten with P.J. throwing him the ball and watching him make plays,” Brownell added.
The Tigers are quite capable of taking Notre Dame down this week but will have to do better defensively. To be fair, they’re playing much better defense than we usually see from a Brownell team but it’s still pretty average in most games. That is partly due to a lack of size in the guard department, as well as the absence of a solid rim protector.
Communication and periodic breakdowns are also responsible for lapses on the defensive end of the floor. This is something they simply have to fix on Wednesday as Notre Dame will not let that go unpunished. The Irish keep the rotation tight in tougher games but forward Paul Atkinson is capable of pulling the trigger from long distance while Prentiss Hubb, Goodwin, and Blake make up a formidable scoring trio.
If the Tigers could leave it up to Atkinson and fellow big man Nate Laszewski to beat them while keeping Hall and Hunter Tyson on the court and out of foul trouble, they will have a great shot at victory.
They would also do well to keep the Irish from making more than seven threes.
Brownell would also do well if he could get Hall and Al-Amir Dawes hot at the same time. Clemson isn't that great when they’re both out of it. Hall, in particular, should present a big problem for Notre Dame as they are even worse at getting blocks than Clemson.
The Tigers should have no problems playing their offensive game so players will expect open looks. They just have to knock them down, which is something they’ve had little difficulty doing this season.
The teams are admittedly similar but the Tigers are slightly better defensively and should come away with a win of slim margins.