CLEMSON – A home win over a “mid-major” stands between Clemson (22-12) and a date at the hallowed hardwood of Madison Square Garden.
Belmont (26-9), however, is far from a team to sleep on for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. tip (ESPN).
The Bruins had made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments prior to a loss to Eastern Kentucky earlier this March in the Ohio Valley Conference title game.
Averaging 27 wins over the last four seasons, their conquests include victories at UNC (83-80 this season) and Stanford (70-62 last season).
Longtime Bruins coach Rick Byrd can reach 600 wins at the school with a National Invitation Tournament championship.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Mid-major is just in name. The way (division one) is with some of the teams – the talent level isn’t much different. There may be one or two guys physically bigger, but usually the skill level is with the mid-major team.”
Four Bruins average double-figures – led by senior guard J.J. Mann’s 18.3 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from the perimeter.
Belmont is No. 1 or No. 2 nationally in field goal percentage (50.2), two-point field goal percentage (57.4) and effective field goal percentage (58.4) – top-20 in 3-point shooting (39.3).
They match a top-20 offense in points per possession (1.15) against a top-20 Clemson defense in the stat (0.95), holding their two NIT opponents so far to 0.89. The Tigers are 19-1 when keeping teams under a point a possession and 3-11 otherwise.
Belmont averaged 81 points over their first two postseason games, at Green Bay (80-65) and back home against Robert Morris (82-71). Hot starts guided both wins, with 46.5 points in the first half. The most Clemson has allowed in a first half this season is 40 (at Arkansas).
“They’ll have five guys that can shoot,” Brownell said. “Obviously they went to UNC and won this year. They won their league. I’m very familiar with coach Byrd having played them a couple times at the mid-major level. You have to play really well because their execution is extremely high.”
“Belmont will be more skilled than we will. We’ll have to figure out ways to defend their skill and use our athleticism to our advantage.”
Clemson has held their last four opponents to 40 percent or less shooting, but some consistent offensive production has led to a 7-3 record down the stretch – the three losses all by five or less points.
In all 10, the Tigers have had at least three in double-figures – anchored by star forward K.J. McDaniels’ 17.2 points, 52 percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds per game.
With freshman forward Jaron Blossomgame (leg) likely out again, the athletic 6-6 junior has had to move to more from the wing to a power forward role in a smaller lineup.
The Tigers shot one of their highest percentages last time out against Illinois (49), with 16 assists on 20 buckets.
“I like the small lineup,” junior guard Rod Hall said, “but Jaron is a good rebounder. With the small lineup we can get the ball out faster, everybody can go off the dribble and penetrate and kick.”
Two games into the second-tier tourney, motivation (or lack thereof) isn’t an issue with a trip to New York City next week on the line.
The NIT finals have acted as a springboard of late – five of the last six teams making the jump to the NCAA Tournament the next season.
“It’s postseason basketball,” Belmont’s Byrd said. “It may not be the NCAAs, but it is the next thing to it. I told my team if we get into this tournament and get some wins it’s going to be way better than you have any idea.”
For a Tigers’ squad that’s had to battle lately, they get one last home game and an opportunity at a reward for what they’ve put in.
“It’ll be great for us because the hard work I’ve been putting in since our Italy trip,” McDaniels said. “It just shows the hard work we put in over the summer. We’re just going to keep fighting and keep grinding.”