'Ready' Tigers meet Illinois challenge

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) and Illinois forward Nnanna Egwu (32) smile as they celebrate after their NCAA mens NIT college basketball game against Boston University in Boston, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Illinois defeated Boston University 66-62 in a come-from-behind victory late in the second half advancing to the second round of the NIT Tournament. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) and Illinois forward Nnanna Egwu (32) smile as they celebrate after their NCAA mens NIT college basketball game against Boston University in Boston, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Illinois defeated Boston University 66-62 in a come-from-behind victory late in the second half advancing to the second round of the NIT Tournament. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Tigers ready to play whenever

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CLEMSON – It took 33 games, but Clemson’s annual shot at a Big Ten team comes Sunday.

After last year’s 13-18 overall record and 5-13 mark in ACC play, the Tigers didn’t qualify for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but thanks to a school-record 21 victories after a losing mark – they’ve played on NIT action to host Illinois (20-14) for an 11 a.m. tip.

The schools’ last matchup? The 2009 ACC-Big Ten Challenge in Littlejohn, where Illinois overcame a 20-point first half deficit to win 76-74.

For both sides, that’s a coach and many players ago, but that doesn’t mean they are completely foreign.

Defense is the calling card – the Tigers (21-12) giving up 58.2 points and the Illini, 62.5 points per game.

Clemson topped 70 their last time out against Georgia State (78-66) – for only the fifth time in 2014. Illinois allowed just one team to do so in their last eight games, going 6-2 in the stretch.

“(To play) a Big Ten team the quality of Illinois is big for our players and big for our fans,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “It should be a very hotly-contested, physical game. Two teams that both defend at a very high level. Both coaches place a premium on it.

“In a lot of ways it’s like looking in the mirror. Neither team really shoots it well from the three, but both have managed to grind out 20 wins. Win some significant games against NCAA Tournament teams because of their intelligence and because of their togetherness.”

The Illini run a four-guard lineup led by imposing junior Rayvonte Rice, who’s averaging 15.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

“He’s just a big ole power wing,” Brownell said. “Really strong driver of the basketball. At (6-4) 235, he’s coming at you with weight and strength. Good skill level. Powerful player.”

Clemson’s dynamic star K.J. McDaniels will share the responsibility of guarding him, coming off a career-effort on Tuesday.

He tied his bests in points (30) and rebounds (14), adding five blocks.

Sophomore center Landry Nnoko joined in him the 60-block club – a first in Clemson history for two to reach that mark in a single-season. The Tigers rank top-10 nationally in blocks per game (6), while also top-10 in least fouls a game (15.8).

Clemson’s offensive numbers have seen a boost down the stretch thanks to a couple of late-season surges.

Junior guard Damarcus Harrison has averaged 12 points per game in the Tigers’ last nine. Coming off the bench, sophomore guard Jordan Roper has averaged double-figures in the last four games.

Playing in a venue they are 14-3 in on the season – and just one loss by more than five points, the Tigers are feeling good only two wins from an early April visit to New York City.

“It’s huge,” Roper said. “(The NIT doesn’t) really want it to be like a home court advantage, but it is. We’re at home. We wake up in our beds and go through our routines. Especially since the game is at 11 a.m. going through your routine here and mentally prepare where you normally prepare helps a lot.”

Roper is confident the early tip won’t have an effect on a team that clearly looks motivated to keep playing.

Tigers welcome Illinois

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“No one was really upset about that,” he said. “We were just excited to advance. No matter what time we play – whether it’s five in the morning – we’re ready to advance as far as we can go. Our goal is go to New York and win this thing. We’re ready to play.”

Competing with church and other Sunday activities, the start time isn’t ideal for fans, but the early returns from Clemson ticket office this week were favorable. Tickets are only $10 with general admission seating for the big conference versus big conference action.

“It certainly isn’t the best time,” Brownell said. “We’re optimistic that some people are going to find ways to go to church and do some other things at different times in the day. This is what happens to you in postseason. It is exciting to have a second home game.”

With a win, Clemson would host a third in the NIT quarterfinals with Belmont on Tuesday night.

Follow Brandon Rink on Twitter @brink_aim and OrangeandWhite.com @orangeandwhite

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