After the first 11 minutes of Tuesday night’s trip to Charlottesville, No. 18 Clemson led No. 2 Virginia 20-14.
Over the course of the final 29 minutes of that game, the Tigers would muster all of 16 points, getting battered by a Tony Bennett defense that has done the same to many a foe that walked into John Paul Jones Arena and losing by the final score of 61-36.
With senior forward Donte Grantham suffering a torn ACL in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame, No. 18 Clemson entered Tuesday’s matchup with No. 2 Virginia without its second-leading scorer and one of its top three-point shooters as well.
Dealing with Bennett’s pack-line defense is hard enough with a full roster; to do so without an important option the caliber of Grantham makes the task that much more difficult.
For Clemson, the loss was a harsh reminder that the margin for error became much smaller the moment Grantham went down on Saturday against Notre Dame. Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas have all been key contributors for the Tigers this season, a big reason why Brad Brownell presides over a team that has looked the part of an NCAA tournament participant for much of this season.
Against Virginia that trio combined to score eight points, with Reed responsible for six. If not for the play of Gabe DeVoe II, who scored all 11 of his points in the first half, and freshman forward Aamir Simms, one could argue that Clemson would have found it difficult to score 30 points against the Virginia defense.
Without Grantham, Clemson can ill-afford to have its remaining key offensive options struggle as Reed, Thomas and Mitchell did Tuesday night. Thomas had issues finding looks against Virginia’s interior defenders, and it wasn’t simply because of the Cavaliers’ ability to double the post as well as any team in the country. There were other times in which Virginia didn’t double, and the likes of Wilkins (when he was healthy enough to play), Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite all got the job done when called upon.
As a result Thomas, who entered the game averaging 11.1 points per contest and shooting better than 62 percent from the field, had as many turnovers as field goal attempts: three. Mitchell was in a similar position, missing all three of his shot attempts and turning the ball over three times, and even with his 11 points the aforementioned DeVoe was responsible for five turnovers.
The first game after losing a key player can be tough for a team, as the remaining options are adjusting to either new or increased responsibilities. So while Tuesday’s result does say something about Clemson’s margin for error moving forward, it says even more about Virginia’s status as not only an ACC title contender (they’re now 8-0 in league play) but also a national title contender as well.
The cynics will see that and jump to say that we’ve been here before, that Virginia still has something to prove come NCAA tournament time. That’s fine, and Virginia did experience some lulls offensively in the first half against Clemson that they can’t afford if they’re to leave Duke with a win Saturday.
But when a team defends as well as Virginia can, they’ll give themselves a shot in just about any game. And when Virginia really buckled down defensively against Clemson, it largely occurred without the services of a player in Wilkins who rates among the best defensive players in college basketball.
Diakite may have scored just two points, but more importantly he finished with three blocked shots and two steals. Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and Devon Hall combined for nine steals, and forwards Jack Salt and DeAndre Hunter chipped in as well. Some may want to focus on the lack of a guy who can score 25-plus points every night, but when a team defends as well as Virginia does should that “deficiency” be held against them?
We’ll learn even more about Virginia on Saturday, but underrate their chances of reaching the Final Four at your own peril.