Underdog role vs. grudge match, Clemson and Alabama vie for first Final Four bid
Clemson played a physical game in Tuscaloosa en route to a win in November.

Underdog role vs. grudge match, Clemson and Alabama vie for first Final Four bid

by - Staff Writer -

LOS ANGELES - Over 120 days have passed since the Clemson men’s basketball team went to Tuscaloosa and upset the Alabama Crimson Tide, 85-77.

Going into Saturday’s Elite Eight rematch in the West Region (8:49 EDT/TBS), how the teams treat that particular data point could determine whether either program secures a first Final Four bid.

The Tigers (24-11) expect an Alabama team (24-11) ready for a fight.

“They're a totally different team from when we played them,” Clemson forward Ian Schieffelin said. “We kinda out-physicaled them I'd say the last game. We’re kinda ready for them to punch us back in the mouth this game…It's always good to have that success and just knowing that you've already done that against them already. Already gives me a little bit of confidence going into the game.”

And the Crimson Tide are indeed looking to bring that fight in the grudge match.

“I think as us being competitors, there's definitely a revenge factor,” Alabama’s Aaron Estrada said. “Nobody wants to lose to a team twice, especially who you think you can beat. So I think that's just going to add even more fuel to us, and it's going to make us play harder.”

The Tigers mount the chip on their shoulder in a different way, an underdog in a fourth consecutive game. They have already notched the most consecutive wins to start an NCAA Tourney as an underdog since 1985 (per ESPN research).

When the two competing ideas meet, what matters when it’s time to tip it off?

“I think those factors are very important before the game, but once the ball is tipped, it's just a basketball game,” Schieffelin said. “It's time to go. Whether you have it or not, we've had the revenge factor with UNC. They beat us at home. We really wanted to get them back and beat them (at their home). That helps lead up to your preparation before the game, and once that ball is tipped -- it's time to go. Some of those things go out the window.”

“At the end of the day, we're just matching up with each other on the court. It's just the best man wins,” graduate Clemson forward Jack Clark said. “So it's going to be a fun game.”

Since returning as a regular from injury, Clark has boosted a Clemson defense that’s shot up 35 spots in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings since late February (No. 33 now). The challenge ahead is a third consecutive Top 10 offensive team by KenPom’s ratings with the Crimson Tide (4). A Clemson team that’s held each opponent faced this tournament under 40% percent shooting carries plenty of confidence into the matchup.

“Pretty much the same gameplan as Baylor and New Mexico and Arizona,” Clark said. “Just slowing them down in transition, make sure they don't get a bunch of 3-point attempts up, and just guarding the 3-point line since Alabama loves to do that. Just pretty much guarding them like that.”

“Just kind of the same message we've had these past three games,” Schieffelin said also. “Kinda limiting these teams to getting easy transition points and making them work for all their baskets. Just not giving them easy shots and making them work for every thing. It's worked for these past three games, and I think we're going to try to do that again. If we can do that, we can win the game.”

Just like football?: Clemson and Alabama meet out West for the third time since January 2016, but after splitting those football national championship meetings in the Bay Area and Arizona, this one is on the hardwood at Arena.

“Alabama and Clemson playing in L.A. Most people would think we're out here playing in the Rose Bowl. The basketball Rose Bowl,” Alabama’s Nate Oats said.

Both coaches know they’re working at diehard football schools, but each could notch a marquee moment for their school with a first Final Four trip.

“I think it will be huge because we came in and Alabama football is obviously the best football program in the country…In my opinion, they've got all sorts of national championships. But multiple sports have won national championships at Alabama. The athletic department as a whole is a championship-level athletic department,” Oats said. “We need to get men's basketball up to the level that a lot of other sports are at. So if you could make the Final Four -- obviously winning the national championship's the biggest thing but the Final Four is huge in men's basketball.”

Brad Brownell echoed the sentiment of wanting to bring another key marker of success to a Clemson program.

“I have a great relationship with Coach Swinney. I want us to be great at everything, and we're really good at a lot of sports at Clemson,” he said. “There's pressure you feel because you want to have as good a program as the others coaches have. Coach Noonan in soccer has won national championships. We've got a great group of coaches in our athletic department.

“Certainly we're known as a football school and will be one forever. And we're all really proud of that. But I'm just doing the best I can to make our program as good as it can be. And I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish the last 14 years. And certainly this year has been really special.”

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