CLEMSON — Over the next 17 days, Brad Brownell will take his young Clemson men’s basketball team through what he calls a “gauntlet.”
“We’re going to see all different styles of basketball,” Brownell said this week. “We’ll see great athletes, guys who are very skilled and disciplined, we’ll see zone and man defenses at the highest levels. Hopefully at some point that’ll prepare us to play well in January and February.”
The gauntlet starts Thursday in Orlando as Clemson (2-0) opens play in the Old Spice Classic against No.17 Gonzaga (3-0); the game will tip off at approximately 9 p.m. with ESPN2 telecast. The winner will face either Oklahoma or UTEP in Friday’s semifinals, with the loser facing either the Sooners or Miners.
The Bulldogs average a nation-best 94 points per game and are a darkhorse Final Four contender.
This weekend begins a stretch which will see Clemson host Purdue in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, travel to South Carolina on Dec. 2 and host Arizona on Dec. 8. It’ll be a major test for the Tigers’ roster; nine of the 11 active players are freshmen or sophomores.
Clemson’s last win over a ranked non-conference opponent was a 70-69 win over Butler in the 2009 76 Classic in Anaheim, Ca.
“What this will do is let some young guys on our team know just how good some teams and players can be,” Brownell said. “If you’re a young guy, sometimes you don’t understand how good everyone can be. This will be a true test from that standpoint.
“It’ll be high-level basketball and we’ll be facing off against some really good players. It’ll let you know where your weaknesses are and what you need to work on. For our team, things like that will be very good. It might not always be pretty, but it’s what you like.”
Senior forward Milton Jennings concurs.
“These are like NCAA Tournament games,” he said. “It’s going to be good for the freshmen to find out how the end of the year’s going to be, how the ACC is going to be. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
Gonzaga is a returning NCAA Tournament team, led by senior forward Elias Harris, who averages 13 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Four other starters, led by sophomore guard Gary Bell, Jr., also average between 11 and 13 points per game.
In addition, 7-foot-1 Polish freshman Przemek Karnowski leads the Zags averaging 16 points per game off the bench.
They play quickly, which could cause concerns for Clemson’s defense.
“They’re a difficult matchup,” Brownell said. “So many guys can score that it’s hard to key on one area. They can shoot, they have big post players, experience, depth, great defense. They do a good job of mixing up their defense with a little man, zone, pressing. The guys are very smart, well-coached, in good positions, physical big and strong. It’ll be a great opening game for us to see where we’re at in relation to one of the better teams in college basketball.”
Clemson averages 74.5 points per game, but Brownell says the Tigers’ defense is their best asset right now.
“Scoring will be an issue,” he said. “I don’t know if we have the consistency offensively to be a really good team. I’m anxious to see if our defense can be as good as it needs to be. It’s better than our offense right now. Playing Gonzaga, you’re going to find out how good you can guard with the things they do in certain situations.”
Jennings said learning Brownell’s offensive system remains a process for younger players.
“It’s the offensive pace, getting down the offense,” he said. “We still have some trouble with the motion, getting into a flow. It’s going to happen. We’re a young team, and there are so many ways to come down to the court with each player reacting to what you’re going to do. Communication is the biggest thing we’re working on. Getting easier sets in the motion. Coach is making it much easier and giving us easier things to look at.”