Palmetto State college basketball wasn’t supposed to amount to much this season and Clemson, left for dead in the refined Atlantic Coast Conference, was one of the big reasons.
The not-on-paper Tigers are making quite a second impression. A 72-58 Charleston Classic victory over Temple on Thursday night at TD Arena follows Sunday’s decisive rout of rival South Carolina.
A 4-0 record is not so ho-hum, considering.
“This group likes each other,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “They work very hard every day in practice. We’ve been very competitive. We have a lot of holes in our game; we didn’t play great (against Temple), especially in the first half.”
But the grittier team won, again, to set up a Friday night matchup with Davidson.
“The kids are very coachable,” Brownell said of his seniorless team. “They’re working at it, and your togetherness means a lot. It’s a big part of the team being successful. Right now, we feel good about our team and what we’re doing.”
Though the Owls are rebuilding, they were picked a respectable fifth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll and were accompanied by a spirited group of fans seated behind the Temple bench. It didn’t include proud Temple grad Bill Cosby, booked for Sunday night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. But when the home-away-from-home team got cheers of “Clemson” from one side of the arena and “Tigers” from the other, Temple fans responded with a pair of signs:
“Hoot” and “Hoot.”
Brownell said Clemson fan support was appreciated by his young team. He lobbied for more orange in the stands Friday night, even knowing the Clemson football team has a noon kickoff Saturday against the Citadel.
“It would help if Dabo (Swinney) would tell those people, ‘We don’t need you until Saturday morning,’” Brownell said with a grin.
A hot start is just what a fragile program needs to start an important season.
As he did against South Carolina, junior forward K.J. McDaniels showed streaks of All-ACC caliber promise (but got a long talking-to from Brownell after poor shot selection).
You have to like Clemson’s improved depth. Sophomore guard Jordan Roper came off the bench early, nailed a 3-pointer, got a rebound and whipped a pass to Jaron Blossomgame for a dunk.
Junior guard Rod Hall made two traditional three-point plays in a row down the stretch.
Most importantly Thursday night, 6-10 sophomore Landry Nnoko grabbed 15 rebounds and played superb defense on Temple’s top scorer, forward Anthony Lee, who made only 2 of 8 shots.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the graph line that is Clemson basketball under Brownell:
2011: 22-12, 9-7 in the ACC and an NCAA Tournament “play-in” victory.
2012: 16-15, 8-8 in the ACC.
2013: 13-18, 5-13 in the ACC.
2014 (paper): Picked to finish 13th in the expanded 14-team ACC.
So far (reality): 4-0.
The real tests come with an ACC schedule that starts Jan. 4 at Boston College.
For now, this is Clemson’s tournament; the Tigers won the first Charleston Classic in 2008, defeating Hofstra, TCU and Temple (again, sans Cosby). Players get warm greetings up and down King Street and the coaching staff knows where to find the best per diem-friendly shrimp and grits.
It helps that this Clemson team enjoyed a summer trip to Italy. The Tigers didn’t face lions or the Italian National Team inside the Colosseum, but they did bond. Often teams coming off such international travel get off to good starts, and the Tigers were firing on most cylinders last week in their win over South Carolina.
They survived a 21-6 Temple run, sticking to Brownell’s defensive game plan as drawn up.
Clemson basketball fans should find out significant things about their team before the Charleston Classic ends. Davidson, even in a Bob McKillop rebuilding year, is always a good test of fundamentals and will.
A Sunday night championship game (ESPN2) matching Clemson against No. 19 New Mexico would be ideal.
The best part about November basketball? There is hope, for the Tigers and for fans of other teams in a football-mad state.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff