Brownell's overachieving Tigers gunning for 20th win, record 11th in ACC play

Clemson-Pittsburgh winner will claim No. 5 seed in next week's ACC tournament

Clemson's Landry Nnoko, right, gets a rebound near teammate Jaron Blossomgame, middle, and Miami's Tonye Jekiri during the first half at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Landry Nnoko, right, gets a rebound near teammate Jaron Blossomgame, middle, and Miami's Tonye Jekiri during the first half at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson.

For much of the past month, it seems that the Clemson men's basketball team has been in rewind mode - playing the same game over and again, to some success.

Since the end of January, the majority of the Tigers' games have come down to the wire, many of them low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs in which Clemson has dictated tempo and style.

The Tigers have won their share - four-point victories over Miami, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Florida State - and have lost some as well, including five-pointers to Virginia and Wake Forest, a four-pointer in double overtime to Notre Dame, and even a 57-44 loss to Syracuse, in which the then top-ranked Orange pulled away late.

Clemson's knack for winning its share of the close ones has the Tigers in unprecedented position, with a chance to claim a school-record 11th ACC victory when Pittsburgh visits Littlejohn Coliseum Saturday for the teams' 4 p.m. regular-season finale.

Brad Brownell noted after the Tigers' record-tying 10th ACC win over Miami earlier this week that reaching double digits might be a bit easier given the new 18-game league schedule.

But that aside, 11 - or even 10 - conference wins reflects a remarkable job by Brownell and his staff in shaping a team so young that it won't have a Senior Day on Saturday, and which was picked to finished 14th in the 15-team league.

The Tigers (19-10 overall and 10-7 in the ACC) still have a hill to climb to reach their NCAA tournament goal, but they'll keep plugging away against the Panthers (22-8 and 10-7).

Both teams have already secured a first-day bye in the upcoming ACC tournament, and Saturday's winner will claim fifth place in the ACC standings behind Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke.

When the two teams met earlier at Pittsburgh, the Tigers struggled through perhaps their worst game of the season. They fell behind early, K.J. McDaniels got into first-half foul trouble, and Pittsburgh shot 56 percent from the field in a 76-43 runaway.

The Tigers have found their stride in the past three weeks behind consistent All-ACC caliber play by McDaniels, the complementary scoring of Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison, and the improved inside presence of Landry Nnoko.

The Tigers comes into the game with some confidence, knowing they have what it takes to win close games.

“It feels good for our players," said Brownell after Clemson's 58-54 win over Miami on Tuesday. "You see how hard players work and then you go play your tail off and lose by a couple baskets and that’s hard. There’s really not a big difference between 6-10 and 10-6. Momentum that you have from winning close games helps you."

A couple of weeks ago, after Clemson's 45-41 victory over Georgia Tech, Yellow Jackets' coach Brian Gregory said success and failure in a league as balanced as the ACC always comes down to the close games.

"When you’re good, you win 80 percent of those," Gregory said. "Clemson has won those, and that’s why they are (at the time) 8-6 in the league. The season is going to be determined by those games. With eight minutes to go it’s a one or two possession game, how many do you win?"

For the first time since 1996, Clemson does not have a senior on its roster. But fans might consider taking a just-in-case peek at McDaniels, who is being projected as a first-rounder in some NBA mock drafts.

In lieu of Senior Day, the Clemson program will celebrate its Alumni Reunion Weekend. Nearly 80 former players, coaches and managers are expected to attend.

Follow Kerry Capps on Twitter @oandwkc

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