#5 Clemson Tigers vs. #12 New Mexico State Aggies
Friday, March 16, 9:57 p.m., truTV
Clemson Tigers (23-9, 11-7) – ACC at-large
Player to Watch: Gabe DeVoe (13.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.0 APG)
Gabe DeVoe, the senior guard, has become the go-to scoring option since the injury to star forward Donte Grantham. A lot of people thought the Tigers would drop off significantly after the loss of Grantham, but DeVoe has stepped up in his absence. DeVoe is averaging 15.3 PPG since Grantham’s injury, and while he is a solid 3-point shooter (39% from beyond the arc), DeVoe and the rest of these Tigers have also ramped up their defensive intensity. But, DeVoe is really going to have his hands full guarding New Mexico State’s Zach Lofton. For Clemson to avoid that infamous 5-12 upset, Gabe DeVoe is going to have to play an excellent game. If you need a blueprint for what would be an “excellent” game, look no further than DeVoe’s performance against Boston College in the ACC Tournament, when DeVoe scored 25 points and held the ACC’s leading scorer, Jerome Robinson, to just 20 points on 4-16 shooting.
X-Factor: Clemson must out-rebound New Mexico State
Not to dwell on the loss of Donte Grantham, but the senior forward was also second on the team in rebounding, averaging nearly 7 boards per game. Clemson is rather undersized, especially for a Power 5 school, and is 173rd in rebounds per game, while New Mexico State is 4th in the country in that department. On the offensive end, Clemson can be offensively challenged at times, typical for a team that lives and dies by the 3, so the Tigers must get offensive rebounds and second chance points to overcome any shooting slumps. On the defensive end, New Mexico State is 11th in the country in offensive rebound percentage; they get almost 34% of their misses. Led by senior forward Jemerrio Jones (3.7 offensive RPG), the Aggies attack the glass and will arguably have the advantage down low, which is rare for a 12 seed. Clemson has size and depth at the forward position, but despite going through the ACC, haven’t seen a relentless rebounder like Jones.
New Mexico State Aggies (28-5, 12-2) – WAC automatic bid
Player to Watch: Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.7 3PM/per game)
The Aggies senior guard might be the most well-traveled player in the tournament. Lofton began his career at Illinois State before transferring to Texas Southern last season, and has now found himself on a dangerous New Mexico State team. One thing that has always followed Lofton is his ability to score the basketball; he has averaged double digits in PPG in all three of his years in college. The core of this Aggies group has tournament experience, most of whom was part of the New Mexico State that made the big dance last year, and even Lofton played in last year’s tournament for Texas Southern. However, despite the experience, the Aggies have struggled in March Madness, New Mexico State lost to Baylor, 71-53, and Lofton scored just 9 points on 2-11 shooting against UNC. Lofton is a complete scorer, but will be guarded by Gabe DeVoe who has proven himself to be a premier on-ball defender. For New Mexico State to pull off the upset, Zach Lofton needs to have a big game.
X-Factor: New Mexico State must have a third scorer
Expect Jemerrio Jones and Zach Lofton to get theirs but the Aggies need a third contributor on the offensive end to match Clemson’s balance. Jones and Lofton account for 40 percent of New Mexico State’s scoring and are the only players averaging double digits for the Aggies. Keep an eye Ohio State transfer A.J. Harris (9.6 PPG). Harris is coming off a season-high 20 points in the WAC Championship against Grand Canyon, and has scored in double figures in four of the last five games.
Matchup to Watch: Gabe DeVoe vs. Zach Lofton
A couple of senior guards going at it is what March Madness is all about, and expect this matchup to live up to the expectations. DeVoe is a fearless and proud defender and is more than likely chomping at the bit at the opportunity to lock up Lofton. However, Lofton has that moxie, and when he gets going can be must-see TV. This matchup will be much more exciting when New Mexico State has the ball, but is just as important when Clemson has possession. The Tigers run a motion offense that is guard-oriented, so Lofton will have to try to chase DeVoe off the 3-point line all game. If Lofton can do that while still having enough energy to be productive on the offensive end, the Aggies can upset the Tigers.
Key Stat: Both teams’ scoring defense
New Mexico State is 10th in the country in opponent PPG, holding the opposition to just 63.8 points. Meanwhile, Clemson holds opponents to just 65.8 PPG, which ranks 29th in the country. Both teams pride themselves on the defensive end, and this has the feel of a game where the first team to 60 will win.
Prediction: New Mexico State 73 – 66 Clemson
Clemson has been able to handle their own since the injury to Donte Grantham, but this is a brutal opening round game for the Tigers. New Mexico State has size on the interior, defends extremely well, and has a star in Zach Lofton. The Aggies are in the top 10 in the nation in 3pt field goal defense, and Clemson is just too reliant on the 3-ball. Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones will carry New Mexico State to their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1993.