CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – If you’re looking for a sleeper in the ACC, Clemson could be one possibility. The Tigers look like a growing team as conference play begins, picking up their first road win of the season in their ACC opener on Saturday by holding off Boston College 62-60. Along the way, it’s clear there’s a lot to like about this team and where they are trending.
Brad Brownell’s teams have always been able to defend, and this team is certainly doing that. They allow opponents to shoot just over 35 percent from the field on the season, including under 25 percent from long range. They are athletic enough to turn teams over, and while the 13 turnovers BC committed isn’t very high, it’s still above average for Clemson opponents on the season and it happened in a game played with a low number of possessions.
The Tigers certainly looked like defensive stoppers in the first half, holding BC to 25 percent shooting and one assist with ten turnovers. The Eagles’ execution wasn’t good at all, but Clemson’s defense had something to do with that. The Tigers didn’t allow them to move the ball freely or get good shots.
Brownell is certainly not on a hot seat, but this is unquestionably a key season for the direction the program will go under him. After having to adjust to life without much in the way of holdovers for a couple of years, he has a good deal back this year from last season to build on. That will also be the case next year as this team has no seniors, which means there might be some growing pains in ACC play.
Clemson went through non-conference play without a home loss, but also without a true road win. They only played two of the latter games, losing at Arkansas and at Auburn. The Tigers also had not won a game by single digits before Saturday, a sign that they were not challenged much – and indeed, the only teams they beat with a shot at the NCAA Tournament is one who wins a conference’s automatic bid. Brownell said he scheduled lightly for a reason, noting the bad close to last season as part of it.
“I scheduled soft to build confidence for our team, because we’re coming off a 13-18 year and we needed to win some games so we can think we can beat somebody,” said Brownell.
It looks like that is paying off, and part of that was how this team responded to in-game adversity. Boston College came to life in the second half, and the Tigers never looked rattled. Every time Boston College got closer, the Tigers had an answer before the Eagles got a chance to get closer or tie it. When the Eagles started the second half with the first six points, the Tigers answered right back to get the lead back to double digits. When the Eagles got within 39-36, the Tigers scored the next seven. Then when BC got within 47-43, Brownell called a timeout and Jordan Roper hit a three-pointer from in front of his own bench to put them back up by seven.
Clemson just kept doing enough to keep the Eagles at arm’s length.
“We told our guys they were going to make a run in the second half and you’ve got to weather the storm,” said Brownell. “I thought we did that, with some good play.”
Added junior forward K.J. McDaniels: “I think we showed great poise in the end. We saw them making a run. We didn’t get out of hand with anything, we didn’t try to do too much. We just tried to stay together as a team.”
It wasn’t perfect, as they didn’t have all the answers in the last two minutes. That goes back to this team not being challenged in many of the games they won. This was their first real test in a close game where they came out on top, and perhaps it’s a big step forward.
McDaniels led the way with 16 points and nine rebounds, and he also blocked two shots on the day. He’s a player whose numbers don’t fully justify his impact, as he’s very active and can block or alter shots. Along with classmate Rod Hall, who had seven assists against just two turnovers on the day to continue his fine season, he’s a key holdover that this team hasn’t had the last couple of years when the team’s top players were constantly seniors. They, along with emerging sophomore Roper, sophomores Landry Nnoko and Adonis Filer (who got a clutch basket late on Saturday) as well as redshirt freshman Jaron Blossomgame, form the nucleus of this team. They recently saw guard Devin Coleman transfer, but they should absorb that without too much issue.
McDaniels was seen all along as the guy who could become the star this season, and he’s doing that. But Hall has a 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, so he’s been a big part of this. Ten Tigers average double-digit minutes, so there are plenty of contributors, and that is showing defensively as well. There’s a better base of talent than there has been at any time in Brownell’s tenure, even though this probably isn’t his most experienced team.
Brownell has won in the past with teams that weren’t very athletic, so he has a potentially dangerous combination now. The Tigers are certainly an athletic team, and they are all built to play his system at both ends of the floor. They will need a great ACC run to be an NCAA Tournament team, but even the mere hint of that wasn’t thought of by many before the season. Their confidence is up, they now have a true road win, and they can defend. If they keep up the growth they are showing, they could be a sleeper in the ACC.