Defying expectations early, Tigers believe 'sky's the limit'

Clemson's Rod Hall, center, gets fouled as drives the lane between Wake Forest's Madison Jones (1) and Devin Thomas during an NCAA college basketball game in Clemson, S.C. on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

Photo by Mark Crammer

Clemson's Rod Hall, center, gets fouled as drives the lane between Wake Forest's Madison Jones (1) and Devin Thomas during an NCAA college basketball game in Clemson, S.C. on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

K.J. McDaniels and Jordan Roper joined Clemson coach Brad Brownell at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte back in October.

They did the interview circuit, made a stop by the ESPNU studios and then received the results of the ACC media picks.

14th. Out of 15 teams. That's where the Tigers were pegged preseason. Through 5-of-18 conference matchups, they sit in second place (4-1), while the media's No. 3 selection, UNC (1-4), sits in a tie for last.

"We got back from the ACC media days and I had the piece of paper in my hand," McDaniels said, "and I laughed when I saw it. To prove those people wrong is a good feeling. We just have to stay mature and not get cocky. Go out there and keep working."

His head coach was a little more understanding of the projection.

"I thought we were better than people thought," Brownell said, "but there's no way in not thinking that when you look at our team and our roster and who we have coming back. There's a lot of question marks. We didn't have a lot of guys coming back who were proven players."

The junior swingman McDaniels has been heralded as one of the ACC's top players early, averaging 16.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He's also knocking down 86 percent of his free throws.

Junior guard Rod Hall has built on a strong defensive reputation by jumping from 5.7 points a game last year to averaging 10 per. He ranks fifth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (3).

"There (was) no guarantee that K.J. is going to play as well as he's played and Rod is going to improve and play as well as he's played," Brownell said. "You can say that about a lot of our guys. Our guys have just hung in there and fought.

"The Italy trip was good for us. Gave us a little experience and a little added practice as a team and togetherness. It got us a little further along at the beginning and I think our guys have built off that. Now we're just trying to continue to play good basketball."

The path to a postseason trip is still well down the road going into a stretch of five away in the next six games. Their resume to this point is rather lacking outside of the Duke win, ranking No. 175 out of 349 in strength of schedule.

They hold a RPI of 78, but a KenPom rating of 32. For a realistic NCAAs shot, they'll likely need either a 10-6 conference mark and a couple 'Ws' in the ACC Tournament - or an 11-7 ACC record to reach 20 wins before Greensboro.

In some sense, history is on their side as Clemson made the NCAA Tournament each of the previous three times in school history with a 4-1 or better start in ACC play (won at least two in the tourney two of those times as well).

"There's going to be highs and lows through the course of the league," Brownell said. "It's just a grinder. You just try to pick off as many as you can and see where you finally end up."

His players are confident they can maintain their success.

"I feel like sky's the limit for us," McDaniels said. "If we keep working and the right mentality moving forward, we'll go far."

The Closers

Clemson communications unearthed a pretty solid stat about how the Tigers are finishing games.

Opponents are shooting 28 percent overall and 4-of-44 from three in the final five minutes of the game. Clemson is 13-1 when leading with five to go this season (the loss, 66-64, at Auburn). Tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh held the lead with under five left at No. 2 Syracuse Saturday, but fell 59-54.

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Comments » 2

waran writes:

Go Tigers. The whole Clemson nation is rooting for you.

tigerrob44#291802 writes:

Where is Pittsburgh located?

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