CLEMSON — Two weeks ago, Brad Brownell said his young Clemson men’s basketball team was headed into a gauntlet.
They’ll emerge from that gauntlet this week, but not before facing their toughest opponent.
No.8 Arizona comes to Littlejohn Coliseum Saturday night for a much-anticipated visit that should severely test Brownell’s team.
It is only the fifth-ever visit to Littlejohn from a non-conference top 25 opponent. Clemson is 1-3 in the previous four games, with the only win a 62-57 victory over No.6 South Carolina in the 1997-98 season.
Clemson’s results through its toughest non-conference stretch have been somewhat mixed.
The Tigers played No.12 Gonzaga tough for 35 minutes, holding the Bulldogs 37 points under their scoring average in a 57-49 defeat.
They rebounded the next two games, handling UTEP and Marist to finish fifth in the Old Spice Classic.
Poor shooting and poor 3-point defense cost the Tigers against Purdue; the Boilermakers built a 20-point halftime lead and held on for a 73-61 ACC/Big 10 Challenge victory.
A 64-55 win at South Carolina wasn’t pretty, but that has become par for the course under Brownell’s watch. Excellent defense kept the Gamecocks in check, as South Carolina shot just 34.6 percent from the field. Clemson made nine of its final 12 free throws and 17 of 27 overall, snapping a two-game losing streak to its in-state rival.
Arizona will test the Tigers’ defense with quick pace – the Wildcats average over 81 points per game, with three players averaging at least 12 points per game, led by sophomore forward Nick Johnson (13.7 ppg).
Clemson is 12th nationally in scoring defense, holding foes to 53.7 points per game – six of the Tigers’ eight opponents have scored 57 points or fewer.
Brownell hopes a hostile environment will greet the Wildcats Saturday; Clemson announced Wednesday that less than 800 tickets remain. Arizona is the first non-conference top-25 foe to play at Littlejohn since Seton Hall visited in 2000, and will take the longest trip of any opponent ever to visit Clemson – 1,857 land miles. The previous high was held by Texas Tech, who traveled 1,250 miles.
He’ll roll out a reshuffled lineup. With the transfer of sophomore guard T.J. Sapp, sophomore Damarcus Harrison (who averages 6.1 points per game) is expected to slide into Sapp’s starting role. Meanwhile, senior forward Milton Jennings, who averages 10.8 points per game, will return from a two-game suspension connected to a marijuana possession arrest.
This will be the Tigers’ last significant test until Jan. 5’s ACC opener against Florida State; Florida A&M, a trip to Coastal Carolina, South Carolina State and The Citadel remain on the non-conference slate.
It’s as good a time as any for Clemson to show what it has learned from the gauntlet.