Hellems vs BC

N.C. State's Jericole Hellems (4) slams in two during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Boston College at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, December 30, 2020.

The NC State men’s basketball team will travel to Clemson for its 2021 opener on Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. The Pack finds itself on a bit of a winning streak entering the new year, winning its first two games in conference play against North Carolina and Boston College by identical 79-76 scores. 

The Clemson Tigers weren’t so lucky, starting out ACC play with a 66-60 loss to Virginia Tech to put them at 2-1 in the conference. However, with six wins against Power Five schools, including a 10-point victory over the No. 18 Florida State Seminoles, the Tigers are no pushover. It should be an early gauge for how good this Wolfpack squad is, especially one that hasn’t been as battle-tested early in the season.

Everything starts and ends with the man in the middle for Clemson with preseason All-ACC first team forward Aamir Simms. He has only averaged 13.1 points per game so far this season, but he’s been a far more efficient player than in seasons past, with his field-goal percentage going up 13 points this season. 

In his last game against the Miami Hurricanes, Simms awoke from his slumber with 25 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four blocks. If Simms’ early-season slump was just that, it might be more prudent to expect a Miami-like performance from Simms against NC State. 

As much as redshirt sophomore forward Manny Bates has been a revelation offensively, his tendency to collect fouls means Simms could have a field day going against a cautious Bates, or whoever his understudy is when Bates is riding the pine. If Bates can stay on the floor and play fearlessly, however, then this battle in the paint should prove pivotal in deciding the game. 

That is, if Bates plays at all. In the Pack’s last game, Bates was injured in the first half and did not return for the remainder of the game, and while head coach Kevin Keatts did say he was not overly concerned, he did confirm that Bates would be getting an MRI. 

Should Bates not be available, or only in limited stretches, the responsibility of guarding Simms could fall to redshirt senior forward D.J. Funderburk or junior forward Jericole Hellems, the latter of which has proven his ability to guard players larger than himself this season, putting in a strong defensive shift against UNC-Chapel Hill.

Aside from Simms, Clemson has seen a surprising amount of good guard play on its perimeter, and it has Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor to thank for that. Dawes is second on the team in scoring, with 10 points per game. He’s come up in huge moments for the Tigers, leading the team in scoring against Alabama and Virginia Tech, the latter of which he scored 18 points in. 

Honor doesn’t score in bunches like Simms or even Dawes does, but his 9.6 points per game are spread pretty evenly, scoring eight points in six of the eight games he’s played. He has also made his presence felt defensively, getting 1.9 steals per contest.

NC State will play its first game of 2021 in South Carolina when it meets Clemson. The game is set to start at 7 p.m. on Jan. 5, and will be broadcast on ACC Network.