CLEMSON - Clemson's Brad Brownell and Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik made their ACC debuts in 2010 – their programs, however, have gone in different directions.
Both assumed teams that had just made NCAA Tournament appearances, but over three seasons-plus, the Tigers are 63-49, while the Demon Deacons are 45-65.
More important to Saturday's 4 p.m. tipoff in Littlejohn, Clemson has turned this series on its head.
Pre-2010, Wake Forest had won 10 of 12 and 17 of the previous 20 from the Tigers, but recently, Clemson has swept the four matchups by 15 points per game.
McDaniels relishes playing bigger
The Deacs (12-5, 2-2 ACC) are off to their best start yet under Bzdelik, and the Tigers (11-4, 3-1) have taken notice.
"They have a good team this year," junior forward K.J. McDaniels said. "What Clemson's done to Wake, we can build off of that. We shouldn't take them lightly – and play just as hard against them as Duke.
"Going into road play, this would be a big win for us. It'll be our third win in a row. We'll take that and go with it on the road and play with the same mentality here and outplay those teams."
As McDaniels hinted, Clemson plays its next three games on the road, starting at ACC-contender Pittsburgh next Tuesday. Gunning for a first postseason trip in three seasons, holding the home-court (8-1) and continuing road success (2-0 in conference play) will be critical. The game’s context on the season is not something Brownell was concerning himself with though.
"I'm sure you'll find this hard to believe but I'm not looking ahead," Brownell said. "I'm looking right at Wake Forest and we'll talk about next week, next week."
The Deacs' two double-figure scorers are both sophomores in 6-3 guard Codi Miller-McIntyre (15.8 PPG) and 6-9 forward Devin Thomas (11.4).
"They play a lot of young guys that have all been through the wars," Brownell said. "The experience means a lot. When you bring a group of guys like that together in the same class and they like each other, there's some camaraderie that's natural to build. All of that builds towards a lot better team."
Wake Forest has swept its conference home slate, North Carolina (73-67) and N.C. State (70-69), but as a program, they're seeking first ACC road win since Jan. 21, 2012 (Boston College; only two ACC road wins under Bzdelik period).
"They come in here feeling good about themselves," said Brownell. "The monkey on their back is just winning on the road, which is just like all of us. It's awfully hard and they're a young team trying to find it out. As they get older, they're going to do it."
Meanwhile, Clemson has plenty to feel good about themselves with wins in four of their last five games. With the nation's top scoring defense (53.6), they have held those five opponents and 13 of the 16 total to 60 points or less this season (12-1 record). McDaniels, who leads the ACC in blocks per game (2.7), says their success starts from their focus.
"It's just having the mentality to go out there and do it," McDaniels said. "We're all capable of it and the way we defend we can play with anybody. That motivates us and keeps us going."
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said this week McDaniels was "a player deserving of more attention" on Twitter, averaging 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s scored in double-figures in every ACC contest and seven of the Tigers' last eight games.
Brownell says what sets McDaniels apart is the work he puts in.
"There are a lot of kids that play major college sports that fans would be surprised to know that they like it – but they don't love it," said Brownell. "They don't live and breathe it as we want them as players or as coaches. K.J. does. He really wants to be a great basketball player and he loves the game for the game.
"When you see that out of a player, it makes you want to coach them more because they're excited about it. They're constantly trying to get better. That's special."