CLEMSON — Clemson’s long road ahead begins at maybe the ACC’s new toughest venue.
The Tigers (13-4, 4-1) tangle with No. 20 Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1) for an 8 p.m. tip Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center, battling for at least an early share of the ACC’s No. 2 spot.
While not holding the mystique nationally of a Cameron Indoor or the Dean Dome, the Panthers own a 90 win percentage in the “The Pete.” They are 11-0 there this season, and 2-0 in ACC play, where they have averaged 80 points and a 17.5-point margin of victory.
“We’re sold out every game,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, who’s coached all but one of the 11 seasons-plus in the building. “Every seat is a seating license so there’s an unbelievable demand. Our student section is right on the floor. They’ve got the best seats in the house, which is unique in itself.”
For a Clemson team off to its best start in ACC action in 17 years, the matchup is one of five on the road in their next six games. Conference-mate N.C. State is only other team facing such a challenge. All-time, the Tigers haven’t faced this kind of stretch since 1969-70, where they played seven-straight on the road.
“A lot of teams have grinders where they have three or four,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, “but I don’t know many have five out of sixes. I checked the schedules of most of the league. Having said that, it just is what it is. We’re going to have to find a lot of grit. We’re going to show a lot of toughness and maturity.
“And we’re going to have to improve and play exceptionally well to come out of this well.”
Despite their position currently in the ACC’s top tier, their run has come fairly unheralded among college basketball’s postseason prognosticators. Despite a No. 32 Pomeroy rating, Sporting News is the only major outlet to have the Tigers on the “bubble.”
Since a lengthy Christmas break (11 days between games), Clemson is 5-1 with two wins by double-digits and a 3-0 mark in single-digit games (0-3 in those games pre-Christmas).
Also holding the nation’s top scoring (53.5 PPG) and 3-point defense (.249), it’s hard to fly under the radar among conference peers.
“Defensively they’re as sound as can be just watching them,” Dixon said. “They do a lot of things we do defensively and they’ve got quickness at every position and inside presence. And they play very hard.”
Clemson junior forward K.J. McDaniels and Pittsburgh senior forward Lamar Patterson are pacing the league in the top-10 of six statistical categories each.
In a career-year thus far, McDaniels hasn’t skipped a beat in conference play — averaging 16.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game.
Patterson has averaged 19.6 points and dished 4.6 assists per ACC game. The Panthers rank second in the conference and top-15 nationally in assists per game (16.8).
“They’re one of the elite passing teams in the country,” Brownell said. “They share the ball and are unselfish. They move the ball until somehow, some way you have to eliminate those easy baskets, whether it’s off penetration or within their offense when they’re making layups because of terrific passes.
“That’s difficult to do because they don’t turn it over much and they really grind you on offense.”
Clemson is seeking its first consecutive wins over ranked programs since 1997-98. They downed a No. 16 Duke two weeks ago in Littlejohn, 70-59, and kept momentum going with a sweep of Virginia Tech (road) and Wake Forest (home) last week.
Navigating the gauntlet to come, Brownell can take some solace in five of their final seven contests being in Clemson. First up, however, are trips to Pitt, North Carolina, Florida State, Syracuse and Notre Dame.
“We’re going to play some great teams and have some challenging venues to play in,” Brownell said, “but certainly I’m proud of where our guys have started. Hopefully if we do well with this stretch, we’ll have a chance to do something the last three weeks of the season.”