With their Atlantic Coast Conference season just four games old, the Clemson Tigers remain a work in progress - with plenty of work to be done. But two consecutive victories in league play, both the product of outstanding defensive efforts, have instilled a measure of confidence in a team made up of just two seniors, no juniors, six sophomores and five freshmen.
There is much heavy lifting to be done in the league – Sunday’s road game against North Carolina State is the next daunting challenge – but the squad’s improvement is showing up in both effort and results.
Tuesday’s 60-44 rout of Wake Forest was the latest achievement in a season that now stands at 10-6 overall and 2-2 in the ACC.
It was the second conference game in a row the Tigers had held a team to 44 points (they beat Virginia 59-44 on Saturday), which is the first time in school history the team has limited ACC foes to 45 points or less in back-to-back games.
The defensive intensity has coach Brad Brownell liking what he sees.
“I thought it was really good,” Brownell said following the victory over the Demon Deacons. “I really thought we had a solid defensive performance by our entire team. Certainly when you have K.J. McDaniels, Devin Booker and Landry Nnoko getting blocked shots at the rim, it helps.”
McDaniels, a sophomore forward, stepped up big against Wake.
His 14 points led the team in scoring but it was his seven blocked shots – a career high – that sparked the victory and fired up the 7,291 fans at Littlejohn Coliseum.
McDaniels said his swats served two purposes.
“To be able to challenge every shot puts pressure on them, and it pumps up our team,” McDaniels said. “And I feel like we can do this against any team if we come out with the right mindset.”
McDaniels says the two-game winning streak might be modest, but it could prove to be a major boost the rest of the way.
Last season Clemson opened league play with a win over Florida State, and then promptly lost three in a row.
Next came two consecutive ACC victories, followed by three straight losses.
The Tigers rallied to win five of their next six games, but entered the ACC Tournament as the No. 7 seed and bowed out to No. 10 seed Virginia Tech in the opening round.
“Last year when we started winning those games we got confident and won more,” McDaniels said. “But with these last two wins (against Virginia and Wake Forest) we’re getting confidence a lot earlier. I think that can really help us win more games.”
While the offense has become steadier - better shot selection has been evident in the two-game winning streak - defense will continue to be the key to the Tigers’ success or lack of same.
“We go into every game trying to do the same thing we did (against Wake Forest),” Booker said.
As of today Brownell’s team is second in the ACC in scoring defense (55.4 points per game), first in blocked shots (84 for a 5.3 per game average) second in steals (7.8 per game), and second in turnover margin (+2.69).
For Brownell, the defense against Wake was a good prototype for what his young team needs to do the rest of the way.
“You’ve got to be impressed with our field goal percentage defense,” Brownell said. “We wanted to slow them down on transition. Obviously there were some times when we didn’t hustle or we weren’t in the right position, but I thought for 35 or 40 minutes we had really good transition defense.”