CLEMSON – The No. 3 Miami Hurricanes have a team make-up unlike most playing at an elite level in major conferences.
They have dominated in an undefeated ACC run, winning by 13 points per game, with five seniors averaging over 20 minutes a game.
Hosting the Hurricanes (20-3, 11-0) for a 6 p.m. tipoff, Clemson coach Brad Brownell sees a model for his Tigers (13-11, 5-7) down the road, while aiming for a possibly season-defining upset.
“We don’t get a lot of one-and-done guys here,” Brownell said, “so you hope to put together two or three classes of guys that get to play and kinda learn through experience and grow up in the program.
“By the time they’re juniors and seniors and older players you feel good about a group that’s been together for three or four years. That’s the case with Miami here.”
A veteran squad especially comes in handy on the road for the visitors Sunday, where the Hurricanes have already come out of UNC (68-59), N.C. State (79-78) and Florida State (74-68) with wins.
“They don’t get too high or too low,” Brownell said. “When they’re playing poorly or get off to a poor start – the other team plays well on the road, they just kinda play through it…When they’re playing great, their confidence is through the roof and they just roll.”
Confidence, though, is also on Clemson’s side after finally grabbing a road win at Georgia Tech, 56-53, on Thursday.
They held the Yellow Jackets to under 35 percent shooting, for a seventh-straight victory in the series, with a crucial late free throw and block from senior big man Milton Jennings, and sophomore forward K.J. McDaniels led all scorers with 14 points.
“Winning (at Georgia Tech) is a confidence-booster,” McDaniels said, “and being at home, I think our fans will help us out a lot. Just us being able to trust each other will be able to help too.”
That said, McDaniels can’t help but be impressed looking at the ‘Canes.
“All their players have a huge motor,” said McDaniels. “They can score in a different variety of ways. We just have to lock in defensively and be able to stop (them).”
The Hurricanes both put up points (71.8 ppg, No. 3) and defend (58.6 ppg allowed, No. 1) among the best in conference play. They also rank first in field goal percentage (47.7) and field goal percentage defense (38.6).
Senior center Kenny Kadji leads in scoring (14.3), with uncommon three-point range for his size (6-11). Kadji is joined in the paint by fellow seniors Julian Gamble (league-leader in blocks, 2.7 per game) and Reggie Johnson, who posted 14 points and 8 rebounds in his most minutes since returning from a broken thumb (27).
Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin, atop the league in steals per game (2) and fourth in assists (5), has added a long-range element to his game that has certainly caught Brownell’s eye.
“Larkin’s improved three-point shooting is the reason they’re having the success they are,” Brownell said. “He’s always been fast and a player that makes good decisions, but now the fact that he’s stepping behind ball screens and making deep threes just creates more problems for your defense.”
Miami shoots more threes per game (20.5) than any conference team, with Larkin making a fourth-best 43.4 percent in ACC action.
Brownell is no stranger to second-year Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga, on the wrong end of a 6-4 record in four seasons of “good battles,” when the two went head-to-head at while he was at UNC-Wilmington and Larranaga, George Mason. Brownell won two Colonial Athletic Association regular season and tournament titles, and Larranaga guided the Patriots to the Final Four in the span from 2002-06.
Meeting up for the first time in the ACC last year, Miami shot 52 percent and held off the Tigers for a 76-73 win in Coral Gables, Fla.
By Sunday night, Clemson will have played four of the current Associated Press top 10, after matchups against No. 2 Duke, No. 5 Gonzaga and No. 9 Arizona (held second-half leads against both Arizona and Gonzaga, but lost all three).
The Tigers have toppled nine top-three opponents in school history, and Miami is the highest-ranked team to enter Littlejohn since the last win, 74-47 over No. 3 Duke in the 2008-09 season.