The Clemson Tigers are one of the biggest surprises of this year’s college basketball season. This is a team who was expected to finish toward the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the words “NCAA Tournament” seemed more like a long lost hope rather than a reality. Yes, selection Sunday is still six weeks away, but Clemson basketball has managed through a tough stretch in their schedule and are in a position not many expected them to be with nine remaining conference games.
The Tigers (15-6, 6-3 ACC) are currently fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference after being projected to finish second to last; just ahead of Virginia Tech.
Clemson has relied heavily on their suffocating defense all season long to get to the position they are in; and having a big time playmaker like K.J. McDaniels hasn’t hurt either. The Tigers rank second in scoring defense and are 8-0 when holding opponents to 50 points or less. Clemson is also rejecting the ball at a remarkable rate. With 6.2 blocks per game, the Tigers are ranked twelfth in the country and first in the ACC in that category.
The 3-point defense has also tightened up for the Tigers. They are not losing track of guys on the perimeter, and are not being stuck by the almighty 3-point dagger. Clemson is holding opponents to a conference best 27 percent from behind the arc.
This type of defensive production is not something that should come as a surprise coming from a squad led by head coach Brad Brownell. Brownell is known for his defense-first mentality that leaves players who do not buy in finding a place on the bench. Brownell has hung his hat on defense everywhere he has been, and at Clemson it is no different.
For an offensively challenged team, the Tigers have had to utilize every defensive tactic Brownell has. Clemson has not scored more than 55 points in their last two games, but have come out on top in each contest. Winning those types of games is something Clemson is going to have to do in order to remain in the top half of the ACC.
First team all-ACC hopeful, K.J. McDaniels, is also surprising those all around the country with his consistent play. McDaniels is providing huge production on both sides of the court. He is averaging 16.3 points per game, which is good for ninth best in the ACC, and his 2.6 blocks per game is a league best.
Clemson has also done a nice job with finding a way to win on the road. They are currently 3-2 on the road in conference play, and have not been above .500 in road conference games this late into the season since the 2008-2009 campaign.
Clemson surprised some people with the way they bounced back on the road against Florida State, a team that had already beaten the Tigers by double figures on Clemson’s home court. The Tigers were coming off back-to-back road losses against ACC newcomer Pittsburgh, and North Carolina. In those two losses, Clemson lost by an average of 26 points. What was expected to be a similar outcome from their first meeting turned into Clemson escaping Florida State with a four point victory.
With arguably the toughest part of their conference schedule behind them, do not be surprised to see the Tigers in the upper half of the conference for weeks to come. With a defense playing that well, and an emerging star in McDaniels, Clemson has put themselves in a prime spot to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.