Clemson is off to a great start in the ACC, but Tigers coach Brad Brownell knows the next six games likely will define how much of a contender they are.
That’s because the Tigers (13-4, 4-1) will play five of those six games on the road and that stretch starts tonight when they visit Pitt (16-2, 4-1) at the Petersen Events Center.
After tonight, the Tigers play at North Carolina and Florida State before a home game against Georgia Tech. After that, they must travel to Syracuse and Notre Dame.
Pitt and Clemson are tied with Virginia (13-5, 4-1) for third in the ACC. The Panthers are coming off a 59-54 road loss against first-place Syracuse while the Tigers are coming off a 61-53 win against Wake Forest.
Brownell said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference that this is going to be a challenging stretch for the Tigers. He also said it will make them tougher, but, if they can navigate it with a reasonable record, they will be set for a strong finish as five of their final seven games are at home.
“I am really proud of our guys,” Brownell said. “We are off to a good start and we had a good week last week. Defensively, we have played well this year but we are still offensively trying to get into a rhythm in some games.
“When you have this stretch, when you have 5 out of 6 on the road you hope it balances out eventually. And getting through these next three weeks is going to be a real challenge. It is a grind.
“We are going to play some great teams and in some challenging venues, but I am proud of our guys.”
This will be the first trip to the Petersen Center for Brownell and the Tigers. He said he knows that it will be a hostile environment and that they will have to play extremely well early to minimize the crowd factor.
“I think our guys’ excitement level will be really high,” Brownell said. “Pitt is one of the best home courts in all of college basketball and one that a lot of people don’t really realize. And everyone is obviously familiar with Dean Dome [North Carolina] and playing there.
“It will be kind of like the Duke game, when you play in these big games in these big venues, once you walk in the juices start to flow. But us handling that is part of it, too. We have to play well enough early to handle that atmosphere.”
Clemson, like Pitt, values getting stops and rebounding, and the Tigers are among the leaders in the ACC in several defensive categories.
They also have some younger players who are developing offensively.
He also said stopping the Panthers is going to be a challenge for his team because they do such a great job of passing the ball, finding an open man and getting good shots.
“I have a lot of respect for Jamie [Dixon],” Brownell said. “Their style of play is similar to ours. We both try to defend. Their rebounding is very good, their passing is just unbelievable when you start looking at their stats and their assists-to-turnovers ratio, it is special.
“They are one of the elite passing teams in the country, they are unselfish but somehow, some way you have to eliminate some of those easy baskets. That is difficult to do because they don’t turn the ball over much, they run good stuff and run their offense
Clemson has one of the top players in the conference in K.J. McDaniels, who averages 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Brownell said McDaniel, who leads the conference with 2.8 blocks per game, is a player who has flown a bit under the radar because he didn’t score many points last season before emerging as a top offensive threat this season.
“He is a special player,” Brownell said. “He developed last year nicely and made a big jump and he has continued to make another jump and the thing is he still has a huge ceiling.
“He has improved as an offensive player, his 3-point shot is pretty good, he is getting better at making decisions and he can finish with both hands around the rim.
“It is really a nice story how hard he has worked and to see him develop.”
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise