CLEMSON — For programs like Clemson, opportunities like the one Arizona affords Saturday night don’t occur very often.
When the No.8 Wildcats (6-0) visit Littlejohn Coliseum for an 8 p.m. ESPN2-televised game, it’ll mark just the fifth time in program history – and first time since 2000 – that Clemson (5-2) has hosted a top 25 non-conference foe.
For a young Clemson team, it will serve as the end of a two-week gauntlet against quality competition – a chance to see how they’ve progressed over the season’s first month and how far they have to go.
“It’s definitely a big-time opportunity,” freshman guard Adonis Filer said. “An opportunity to see where we’re at as a team. I know we’ll face some adversity going against a good team like this. This is a good way to see how we’ll handle adversity.”
Arizona is the first top-25 team to visit Littlejohn since Seton Hall in 2000; Clemson is 1-3 all-time at home against non-conference top-25 foes, with its only win a 62-57 victory over No.6 South Carolina in 1997.
It is the return game of a home-and-home with the Wildcats; Arizona coach Sean Miller and Clemson coach Brad Brownell are good friends. Brownell said such visits are incredibly rare and valuable. Arizona is traveling 1,857 miles – the longest distance ever for a Clemson visitor – and Brownell said he’s “grateful.”
“It’s unbelievably difficult,” he said. “A team this highly ranked, all kinds of teams want to play them. Hopefully we’ll get to the point of being a regular top-25 team and people are looking to us for big games.
“You get three, four games like this a year to schedule. With guarantee games, a rivalry game, ACC/Big 10 challenge, you’re down to one or two. What you do with those games is the question. You’re looking at teams that can do that, the pool gets smaller and smaller when you’re trying to make the dates work and the travel work.”
Arizona averages 81.5 points per game; the Wildcats are led by sophomore guard Nick Johnson, who averages 13.7 points per game, and senior forward Solomon Hill, who averages 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Freshman forward Brandon Ashley (9.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is one of the nation’s top freshman big men.
“They have a lot of guys we’ll watch at the next level,” Brownell said. “They play very well defensively, aggressive offensively and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
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, including No.10 Gonzaga, who CU held 37 points under its 94-point average in a 57-49 defeat.
Sophomore forward K.J. McDaniels, averaging 11.9 points per game, said his teammates must have a defensive mindset.
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 and lead a revamped lineup. Senior forward Milton Jennings, who averages 10.8 points per game, will return from a two-game suspension connected to a marijuana possession arrest.
Brownell cautions not to read too much into who starts, saying who finishes games is more important.
“We’ll give Adonis, (Jordan) Roper and Damarcus more chances,” he said. “I don’t know how it’ll play out. It’ll depend on how they play and do what they’re supposed to.”
Filer said he and other young players are becoming more comfortable with one another, and McDaniels said they need to be.
“We have to keep moving on,” he said. “Our young guys, Adonis, Rope, Damarcus, I think they’ll be able to do it and step it up.”
At mid-week, less than 800 public tickets remained for 10,000-seat Littlejohn, and Brownell wants an environment with “lots of orange” in the seats tonight.
“We’re certainly going to need help from our fans,” he said. “There will be times when they make runs, times we make a bad play and we have to hope we’re playing in a good frame of mind, get off to a good start. Our fans need to pick us up, and we have to play well enough to get our fans with us. That’s on us.”