ACC in the NIT: Florida State and Clemson Advancing With Solid Backcourt PlayPosted by Brad Jenkins on April 1st, 2014
The 2013-14 NCAA Tournament will not be something that ACC fans will remember fondly, with only Virginia among the 16 teams playing during the second weekend, and no ACC team advancing to the Elite Eight or beyond. But at least the league has two teams in the NIT Final Four, right? OK, that’s not something that the historically great ACC would normally celebrate, but sometimes you just need to take what you can get. Tonight at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Clemson (23-13) will take on SMU (27-9) at 7:00 PM ET, followed by Florida State (23-13) vs. Minnesota (23-14). The winners will meet for the NIT Championship on Thursday night, giving the ACC a pretty good chance to bring home at least one postseason trophy this season.
Outside of first team all-ACC player K.J. McDaniels, Clemson has struggled offensively for much of this season. It’s no secret that Brad Brownell has been looking for some consistent scoring from just about anybody, but particularly from the perimeter. The good news is that the Tigers are finally getting some help for McDaniels in the form of their two wings. Junior Damarcus Harrison and sophomore Jordan Roper have stepped up their scoring during Clemson’s three-game NIT run. The two have combined to average 24 points per game on their way to New York, after collectively averaging only 14 points per game in the team’s previous 32 games this season. That 10-points per game improvement may not sound dramatic, but to a team that struggles scoring, it’s a huge boost. Harrison was the key to Clemson’s NIT quarterfinal win over Belmont last week, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half as the Tigers rallied from a late five-point deficit to win the game. Including Clemson’s one-point loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament, Roper has now scored in double figures in four straight games, and has been perfect on all 11 of his free throw attempts during that span.
Clemson was fortunate to play its first three NIT games at home. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, where teams play at mostly neutral sites, the NIT allows higher-seeded teams to play on their home courts. The results in both postseason tournaments show what an advantage that can be. In the 60 NCAA Tournament games with a seed difference, the higher seed has won 40 times (66.7%). In the NIT, the higher seed has won 23 of 28 games (82.1%). In fact all four teams in New York got there without having to play a single road game. But unlike the others — all #1 seeds — #3 seed Clemson needed some breaks to get its home court edge. The first break was that St. John’s, the top seed in Clemson’s bracket, lost its opener to Robert Morris. Then, #2 seed Illinois — unable to host NIT games due to arena remodeling — gave Clemson home court advantage for its second round game, which the Tigers won by a single point. From here on, the Tigers will have to find a way to win some games away from the confines of Littlejohn Coliseum.
Florida State has also benefited from improved production from two members of its backcourt, sophomores Aaron Thomas and Devon Bookert. Thomas has exploded offensively in the Seminoles’ three NIT games, averaging 23.0 points per game after scoring 14.0 points per game during the rest of the season. He’s been very efficient as well, shooting 59.5 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from three-point land, and his aggressiveness has paid off in getting to the free throw line for 25 attempts in the three victories. Bookert did not play well in the Seminoles’ opening game of the tournament against Florida Gulf Coast, but he has really come on since that game. In his last two outings, he has totaled 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, while shooting 6-of-7 on three-pointers and 12-of-14 from the foul line. Led by Thomas and Bookert, Florida State is on a red-hot three-point shooting streak. In the NIT thus far, the Seminoles have hit 22-of-37 threes for a sizzling 59.4 percent from beyond the arc. Leonard Hamilton’s team is also winning the free throw battle, shooting 36 more foul shots than their opponents. While it would be nice to keep winning this week at Madison Square Garden, maybe more importantly for Florida State is that the team now appears set in the backcourt for the next two years with a duo that should be able to compete with any pair of guards in the league.
For a proud basketball league like the ACC, this week represents a bittersweet situation in counting on two also-ran NIT semifinalists to carry the postseason torch. But at least it reflects well on the depth of the league, as Clemson, Florida State and N.C. State (before its collapse versus St. Louis) showed that the middle of the ACC may not have been quite as soft as many people thought.