Photo Credit: Clemson Athletics

Clemson vs. Alabama rematch for first Final Four appearance

If you told me last summer that Clemson would end up playing Alabama in the biggest game of the season, I would have asked what New Year’s Six bowl game the Tigers were going to play in. 

The catch? It’s not college football, but rather the Elite Eight of March Madness. 

The biggest game of the 21st century in Clemson basketball takes place on Saturday night, where the No. 6-seeded Tigers will face the No. 4-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide at the Arena in Los Angeles, California. 

Clemson is coming off of their biggest win of the Brad Brownell era, winning 77-72 in the Sweet 16 over the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday night to advance to their second Elite Eight appearance in program history. Now, they will face a team that they are familiar with, a Crimson Tide team that they defeated in late November on their court, winning 85-77 in Tuscaloosa. 

With Round Two set for Saturday night, another win over the Tide would give Clemson their first Final Four in school history, a historic achievement for Brownell and his squad. 

Usual suspects in the tournament aren’t common to the Tigers, as it is the first time the team will face an opponent they faced previously in a season. 

The Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season at the perfect time, seeing incredible contributions from guard Chase Hunter and forwards Ian Schieffelin and RJ Godfrey. Hunter has been the story of the tournament for Clemson, scoring 21, 20, and 18 points in the Tigers’ three contests in the Big Dance. 

What could be the biggest change since the Tigers’ ACC Tournament opening-round loss to Boston College was the way they have been defending. While playing explosive offenses such as New Mexico, Baylor and Arizona, Clemson has held their three opponents on an average of 64 points. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re a defensive-minded group,” head coach Brad Brownell explained. “ I’ve got a lot of good offensive players. And I think a lot of times guys who are that way, their identity is with their offense. And certainly, I embrace offense and want to be good at both.

Brad Brownell

But the one thing standing in their way? Nate Oats and his high-octane offense. 

Alabama does one thing exceptionally well that has guided them to the final eight of the tournament: offense. The Tide’s 90.7 points per game is the best in the country, with their average of 90 points across their three tournament games remaining true as Alabama’s key to success. 

Using this offense to his advantage, the offense helped guide the team to its biggest win of the season in the most important time, an 89-87 win over No. 1 North Carolina to reach their first Elite Eight since 2004. 

Inversely, they give up a lot of points as well. Nate Oats and his squad give up the seventh most points per game to opponents, with 81.1 points per game being averaged by their opposition. 

Despite the numbers, Brownell believes that Alabama’s defense has gotten better as the season has progressed. 

“They seem like they’ve gotten better defensively the longer the year’s gone, which we all hope we do,” Brownell said on Friday, “but I just think it’s a product of good coaching, and they’re playing their best basketball right now when it matters most.”

With these stats being the case for a high-scoring game, expect a score similar to the first meeting between the Tigers and Tide, where 162 points were scored between the two squads. 

The Tide use explosive guards Mark Sears, Aaron Estrada and Rylan Griffen to power their offense. Sears, the main threat and a AP Second Team All-American, scores 21.4 points and 4.1 assists on average. 

Hunter, who has traditionally guarded their opponents best guard, believes he is ready for the challenge. 

“I think the big thing for me is just make sure I make things hard for him, not letting him get easy looks early,” he said, “and just crowding him, like I’ve been doing the whole season against other good guards I’ve played.”

A player who has come into his own for the Tide as of late is forward Grant Nelson as well. A transfer from North Dakota State, Nelson is coming off of his best game as an Alabama player, scoring 24 points, a team-high, against North Carolina in their Sweet 16 win. 

While the magnitude of a game as much as an Elite Eight matchup could bring some nerve to either side, Hunter reassures that the players are relaxed and ready for Saturday night’s matchup. 

“We’re in the Elite Eight, in a big game,” Hunter said on Friday. “To go to Final Four to make history for Clemson, that would be everything.”

Tipoff is set for 8:49 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on TBS.

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