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Tigers, Wildcats face off in Sweet 16 matchup

It’s the biggest game for Clemson basketball since 2018. And the test could not be greater. 

Six years ago in that year, the Tigers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, losing 80-76 in a failed late-game comeback in their last Sweet 16 appearance. 

Fast forward to 2024, and Clemson has the chance to go back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980, which was the only other time the Tigers have made it to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament. 

The Tigers (23-11, 11-9 ACC) will face the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16 matchup, which will take place at the Arena in Los Angeles, California, on Thursday night. It is the first game of the second weekend of March Madness. 

Head coach Brad Brownell has seen two different types of his team in the past three games. In the first, the Tigers saw a 21-point loss to Boston College in the ACC Tournament, knocking the title hopeful out early. 

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. 

Despite the loss, Brownell and his team were given eight days to recover from the loss and prepare for the NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers were given the No. 6 seed and paired up with New Mexico in the opening round. In a matchup where Clemson was picked by many to be upset, the Tigers held the lead for all but 40 seconds of the contest, winning by a coincidental 21 points in the victory over the Lobos. 

Two days later, they would see the same success, especially in the first half, against the No. 3 Baylor Bears. While the Bears would storm back in the second half, putting the game at just two points down the stretch, the Tigers were able to hold on through vital free throw shooting to advance to their second Sweet 16 of the Brownell era. 

The difference in play? Brownell’s supporting cast. Chase Hunter is the first guy brought up, who has scored 41 points over the last two tournament games, dealing six assists in each of their wins. While PJ Hall sat in foul trouble in their win over Baylor, forwards Ian Schieffelin and RJ Godfrey were key contributors in the victory, especially in the post. Godfrey would hit two free throws late in the contest to put the game out of reach for the Bears. 

Despite the recent success, Clemson’s next team in their path will be one of their biggest tests all year: Tommy Lloyd’s Wildcats.

Arizona (27-8, 15-5 Pac-12) has been in the same boat as Clemson this tournament in terms of gameplay: dominance. Following an early loss in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Wildcats have won by double-digits in both of their games in the Big Dance: a 20-point victory over Long Beach State and a 10-point win over No. 7 Dayton in the second round to end up in the last 16. 

“As you would expect a team with as much success as they have had, [a] top-10 team throughout the year, they’ve got a lot of good players,” Brownell said on the Wildcats. “They’ve got experience, both on the perimeter and the post.”

While the competition in the Pac-12 could be regarded as a lighter conference compared to others, the Cats’ out-of-conference schedule was a gauntlet. Games against Duke, Purdue, Florida Atlantic, Michigan State, and Alabama are featured. The team would go 3-2 in those games. 

“What you’re impressed with is the way they have balance,” Brownell said about his opponent. “They play with pace [and] they certainly have an inside presence.”

While Lloyd’s squad has shown great efforts defensively over the past two games, Arizona runs through its offense, being fourth in the country with 87.6 points per game. A motion offense with plenty of pick-and-roll action, Lloyd needed a guard who could score on high levels while being a veteran leader. 

And that’s exactly who he got in North Carolina-transfer Caleb Love. 

Averaging 18.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, the senior earned himself the Pac-12 Player of the Year award this season, making it a successful move out west for the guard. Love led the team in scoring against Dayton in their previous contest, scoring 19 points and proving again why he is one of the most dangerous players from beyond the arc. 

Clemson had high praise for Love, who also scored 23 points in his last game played against the Tigers while a member of the Tar Heels. He would hit six threes in North Carolina’s win last season. 

“He’s definitely come into his own this year, he’s having a great year, one of his best,” Clemson center PJ Hall said. “Other than that, there’s a lot of good players on that team, and one thing that we have done over the past two games is trying to get guys uncomfortable [and] try to make guys get out fo rhythm.” 

Fellow First Team All-Pac-12 player Oumar Ballo is another name to watch. Averaging a double-double per game, the center made the All-Defensive First Team while collecting ten rebounds and blocking 1.3 shots a game. Scoring 12.9 points per game is another threat to know on the opponent. 

Two others, guard Pelle Larsson and forward Keshad Johnson, contribute double-digit averages in points per night, which will make it tough for Clemson to hold the Wildcats with a plethora of prolific scorers. 

The Tigers come into the game as a 7.5-point underdog, according to ESPNBet.

However, with the odds against Clemson, Brownell believes that the team has a great chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in school history. 

“I do think there’s a belief our guys have that we’re pretty good,” he said. “When we’re clicking, we can play with anybody in the country. We’ve proven that. We’ve beat some of the teams in this tournament. So I think that’s a big part of it.”

Tipoff is set for 7:09 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on CBS. 

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