CLEMSON – The mutual respect between Clemson's Brad Brownell and Virginia's Tony Bennett is understandable.
They build their teams first on one factor: defense.
Virginia ranks No. 1 (55.5) and Clemson No. 2 (55.7) in scoring defense nationally, both employing man-to-man, but within their own differing styles.
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"They just have a really talented group and obviously they defend at a high level," Brownell said. "It's hard to score against them. They're always in the right position and make you shoot over the top. It's very difficult to execute offensively, and then they just run their stuff so well. Very disciplined. Tony does a great job there."
Virginia (20-5, 11-1 ACC) is tied with Clemson (15-8, 6-5) in the top-5 in field goal percentage 'D' (38.2), No. 6 in two-point field 'D' (41.3) and top-15 in fouls per game (16.2).
Clemson counters with the nation's top 3-point defense (27) and also has top-15 ranks in blocks (6) and fouls per game (15.7).
"They have very good athleticism," Bennett said, who ranks fourth now among the ACC's longest-tenured coaches (five seasons). "Good shot-blocker behind it that bothers stuff. They are well-coached and disciplined. They hang their hat on it and know that's how they can win games and challenge people. That's been something they've done."
What Clemson seeks is the offense Virginia has had to go with it. Due to their lower-paced attack, their season stats don't jump out, but on 63 possessions a game (9th in the ACC), they are scoring the fifth-most in league-play (67.8). They lead in conference action in scoring margin (+13.7).
Sophomore Cavaliers guard Malcolm Brogdon has scored in double-figures in 12 consecutive games, hitting 39-of-42 free throw attempts. Senior Hoos guard Joe Harris has been a fixture in the ACC in his time at Virginia, coming off a 19-point effort against Maryland.
"Virginia is certainly a much more talented offensive team," Brownell said. "Tony's team is running some motion offense and combine that with very good 'pack-line' man-to-man defense. People in this business have offenses and defensive philosophies that match. That's what we try to do."
Junior Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels has been the one consistent offensive force, coming off a stellar game in the double overtime loss at Notre Dame. Before fouling out late, he put up a career-high 30 points, adding 14 rebounds and six blocks.
He ranks second in ACC play in points (17.3) and rebounds (8.4) per game. ESPN ranked him No. 22 overall among college basketball's top players this week.
"McDaniels is one of the most athletic players in this league and has become one of the best players in this league," said Brownell. "He's a multi-talented wing...He's just a spectacular talent."
With the tough road stretch behind them, Clemson still has an opportunity to impress postseason committees with their finish, starting Saturday with the No. 17 Cavaliers.
The Tigers can grab a second top-20 win of the season that would also act as a springboard with four of their final six games at home – and their two road games against opponents they've already beat (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). A loss would mark their longest losing streak of the year (3).
This week, the NCAA Tournament committee hosted the media for a "mock selection" process, and Clemson was among the ACC bubble teams "under consideration" among the top-39 at-larges.
Brownell hopes his team will respond to the challenge, despite lacking senior leadership.
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"Everybody is a little bit under the gun as a senior," he said, "knowing that you have to make a run to make an NCAA Tournament and do something special in your career. I think there's a little greater sense of urgency.
"I think at times with younger teams you have youthful enthusiasm, which our team does, but it could also use a bit of maturity and guys that have been through the wars a little bit."
Virginia's Bennett is preparing his team for Clemson's best shot.
"The thing that our guys need to understand is that teams play us (different) when we're ranked or playing well," he said. "It's not like the team that Green Bay beat or got blasted by Tennessee by 35. They are probably looking us like they're playing good and got ranked...We need to reset the intensity and carry it into a very tough environment at Clemson."