CLEMSON — For Clemson fans who’ve been paying attention, Saturday night felt awfully familiar.
The Tigers played a top-10 opponent from the West Coast off its collective feet for 30-32 minutes, but faded down the stretch due to a lack of offense and poor free throw shooting.
No.8 Arizona 66, Clemson 54 mirrored a 57-49 loss to now-No.10 Gonzaga in Orlando’s Old Spice Classic, giving equal reasons for concern and optimism.
A young team did plenty of good things on the defensive end, but showed an overall lack of polish.
Arizona won despite shooting only 35.3 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from 3-point range and scoring 15 points below its season average of 81.3.
“You look at those numbers,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, “and I’d have told you we’d have been in great shape.”
Two numbers hurt: Arizona outrebounded Clemson 44-33 and made 17 of 20 free throws, while the Tigers made just nine of 17.
“We wanted to limit their 3s and keep them off the line,” Brownell said, “and we wanted to do our best on the boards. We didn’t do our best on the boards. There were a lot of loose balls and extra possessions that hurt us.”
Clemson made an excellent impression in Littlejohn Coliseum’s first visit from a non-conference top-25 foe in 12 years. Arizona built an early 22-8 lead, but when Rod Hall swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key, capping a 34-14 run, Littlejohn got as loud as I’ve heard it in some time.
It wasn’t a sellout, but the 8,509 who showed up were loud, and they had plenty to cheer about.
Brownell has pieces for success. Sophomore swingman K.J. McDaniels is having a breakout season; he was all over the court Saturday with 13 points, four rebounds and four blocks. He now leads the ACC with 2.5 blocks per game, a surprising stat given his 6-foot-6 frame.
Senior forward Devin Booker continues to play hard, with six points, five blocks and nine rebounds.
And fellow senior Milton Jennings made a strong return to the starting lineup following a two-game suspension for a marijuana possession arrest with 15 points, three rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
Freshman guard Adonis Filer continued his emergence with 10 points and four rebounds, showing a willingness to go to the hole and create for himself.
Hall is limited athletically, and didn’t have his best game, but he consistently succeeds with hustle and elbow grease. And BYU transfer Damarcus Harrison has intriguing size and shooting ability.
This team will have nights where the pieces look disparate and lost, but if it follows the typical pattern of a Brownell team – one that improves as the year goes on – there is reason to believe it’ll have some nights where it puts a scare or 10 into the ACC’s elite.
They’re young, but expect them to learn from Saturday’s disappointment for a February or March payoff.