The Pittsburgh Panthers travel to Littlejohn Coliseum this Saturday to face Clemson in both team’s regular season finale. The Tigers (19-10, 10-7 ACC) have a great opportunity to pass Pitt (22-8, 10-7 ACC) for fifth place in the ACC standings with a win. With the ACC Tournament less than a week away, positioning within the conference could be critical to Clemson’s chances of making any noise next weekend in Greensboro.
Clemson has already played Pitt once this season, an embarrassing 33 point loss on the road to the then 20th ranked Panthers. However, the team Clemson will play on Saturday is much different from the team they faced in late January. When they first played, Pittsburgh was 17-2 and was on a run that made them arguably the hottest team in the league. Since their win over Clemson, the Panthers have gone 5-6 and have lost 4 of their last 6 games. Once a lock for the NCAA Tournament, Pitt has fallen to a bubble team whose destiny is now very much in question.
Despite all these recent struggles, Pitt is still a very talented team that now desperately needs a win this weekend to save their postseason hopes. However, Clemson also must win this game to have any hopes of making the tournament themselves, meaning the team that will have the edge this Saturday will be the one who can focus and not let the pressure of a game of this importance get in their heads. In this regard, Clemson has the advantage. The Tigers are a fringe bubble team, on the outside looking in, with nothing to lose but everything to gain from a win over another top 50 RPI team. Pittsburgh, however, is a team in free fall that is watching its promising season crumble. The slump they are in combined with traveling to what should be a formidable environment for Clemson’s home finale could be a terrible mix for the Panther’s. Pittsburgh will have to rely heavily on Lamar Patterson, its senior leader who has continued to shine through their downward turn and has been responsible for most of the wins Pitt has managed to secure of late. If Clemson can limit Patterson’s contribution, the Panthers’ offense lacks another real weapon at this point.
Similarly, Clemson will, as it has all season, count on contributions from KJ McDaniels to power its offense. McDaniels, who has had a First Team All ACC caliber season, has been the catalyst for the Tigers on both ends of the court. However, Clemson’s offense has recently received a stabilizing force in the form of Demarcus Harrison, the junior transfer from BYU. In his two years in the Clemson program, Harrison has struggled to find his role in the offense until recently. He averages just over 7 points a game for the season, but has scored in double digits in five straight games including two 15 point performances. Though the skill has always been there, Harrison has recently shown an increase in confidence that has made a big difference for the Tigers of late. Clemson has also received a boost in offensive output from Rod Hall, a strong point guard who has only recently worked to find his shot. All season, Hall accepted the role of a traditional point guard who distributed the ball and ran the offense. However, in the last few games he has taken more shots and the Clemson attack is much better for it. Hall averages almost ten points a game but has scored in double digits 4 out of his last 5 games including an impressive 20 point performance in Clemson’s route of NC State. Ultimately, the Tigers’ offense is much more balanced and effective in general than the last time they played Pittsburgh, so we should not be expecting a similar result.
Saturday is also a day that will say a lot about the state of the Clemson basketball program. As schools around the nation send off their seniors, a senior-less Clemson squad can focus on the future. The Tigers, who were predicted to finish next to last in the ACC, have a chance to finish the regular season with an 11-7 conference record and finish in the top third in the standings. Though they are still an outside shot to make the NCAA Tournament, Clemson has shown great strides this season, greatly improving on their 13-18 finish in the regular season just a year ago. With all five starters returning next season, along with the addition of two impressive recruits in Donte Grantham and Gabe DeVoe, the Clemson squad should be strong and able to contend in the ACC next season.