The Clemson Tigers may be known more for their football program than their men’s basketball team, but they’re going to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 following a dominant 84-53 victory over the fourth-seeded Auburn Tigers on Sunday in San Diego.
The victorious Tigers are the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Regional and will the face top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on Friday.
The game resembled a showdown between a No. 1 and No. 16 seed—the UMBC Retrievers excluded—more than one between a No. 4 and No. 5 seed, as the ACC representative rolled to a commanding win with a head-turning 57-16 run after the game was tied at 13 in the early going.
Clemson’s defense was the main story, which overwhelmed Auburn and prevented Mustapha Heron (12 points on 3-of-10 shooting) and Bryce Brown (12 points on 4-of-13 shooting) from establishing a rhythm.
Gabe DeVoe led the way for Clemson with 22 points, five assists and five rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-9 from deep. The game wasn’t in doubt for long, but DeVoe helped set the tone for the ACC school as one of four starters who scored in double figures.
Elijah Thomas tallied a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards, while Marcquise Reed added 16 points and seven boards.
This was more than an individual win for Clemson, as it will advance to its first Sweet 16 since 1997 in a critical step to becoming a formidable basketball program from a loaded ACC. It also prevented Auburn, which won the SEC regular-season title in Bruce Pearl’s fourth year, from reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2003.
It was a clash of styles, as Clemson is known for slowing the pace and playing strong defense, while Auburn frequently relies on its offense and transition approach to scoring.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted metrics, Clemson boasts the seventh-best defense and the 286th-fastest tempo, while Auburn is 25th in offense and 19th in tempo. Whichever team dictated the pace and played at its comfort level figured to win, and Clemson wasted little time doing just that.
Fueled by the defense, Clemson unleashed a 30-6 run to finish the first half and seize control with a 43-19 lead at intermission.
Clemson’s perimeter defenders hounded Auburn’s shooters from the opening tip, contesting nearly every long-range attempt as the No. 4 seed desperately attempted to close the ever-growing gap during the extended run.
Matt Zemek of FanRag Sports summarized the issues for the SEC representative:
Auburn continued to build a house of bricks in the second half and shot an ugly 25.8 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from three-point range. Turnovers weren’t a significant problem (six for the game).
While the defense deserves plenty of praise, Clemson’s offense did its part to not only keep Auburn at bay but extend the lead to as much as a shocking 41 points. It never let up despite dominating the early proceedings, surpassing the combination of Heron and Brown throughout and preventing a comeback.
The balanced attack likely would have been too much for Auburn even in a normal contest, let alone Sunday’s effort from the SEC squad.
Clemson’s attention now turns to a showdown with the powerhouse Jayhawks, who are no strangers to deep NCAA tournament runs.
Kansas lost in the Elite Eight the last two years and has 14 Final Fours and three national championships in program history. This season’s version has Devonte’ Graham running the show, Udoka Azubuike to score down low on the blocks and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk on the wing to drill three-pointers.
The Tigers will have their hands full with a number of potential matchup problems, but the fact they have a Sweet 16 opportunity against a blueblood team is a testament to how far the program has come.