CLEMSON — K.J. McDaniels thought it was funny.
Back on Oct. 16, when he and Jordan Roper left ACC Media Day representing the Clemson basketball team in Charlotte, he heard a litany of generic questions about being picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference landscape by voting reporters.
Three months later, after another ACC win, McDaniels was asked if he knew the Tigers were better than that.
“I knew it. I knew we were. I wasn’t paying attention to it,” McDaniels said. “We had the paper in our hand, and we saw we were 14th. I laughed when I saw that.”
The road only gets rockier from here, but the Tigers are clearly no longer the laughingstock of the league, clinching their best conference start in 17 years by topping Wake Forest, 61-53, Saturday afternoon at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“We’re off to a good start. We’re playing well. It’s a long-distance race,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “We’ve got a lot of rough games, we’re certainly in a very difficult stretch. But we’ve started the year well.”
A make-or-break stretch looms, going on the road to face Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Florida State the next three games followed by visits to Syracuse and Notre Dame the second week of February.
But for now, Clemson can look proudly at that same newspaper McDaniels referenced and see itself tied for second with No. 22 Pittsburgh and Virginia in the ACC standings behind No. 2 Syracuse.
“So to prove those people wrong is a good feeling,” McDaniels said. “But we have to stay mature — we’re not going to get cocky or anything. We’re going to keep working like we’re (in last place.)”
The Tigers (13-4, 4-1) have equaled last year’s win total, but 9,842 fans witnessed just the team’s second victory over a top-100 KenPom.com team (paired with Duke last Saturday.) Except for a pair of games against Georgia Tech, the rest of Clemson’s 13 remaining games are against teams in the top 90 of the website’s ratings.
Still, to say Clemson is taking care of business dismisses how long it’s been since that’s happened.
The last time the Tigers beat four of five league foes at the outset was 1996-97. Seventeen years ago to the day (Jan. 18, 1997), Clemson beat N.C. State 51-42 to move to 5-0 in league play and the No. 2 ranking in the country under then-coach Rick Barnes.
McDaniels led the way again, with 15 points and 12 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season and career.
Wake Forest (12-6, 2-3) had three players in double figures, led by Coron Williams’ 13 points. The Demon Deacons hauled in 14 offensive boards, but capitalized with just nine second-chance points, with many shots altered amid Clemson’s 10 blocks (four for McDaniels, three for center Landry Nnoko.)
“I think what really makes their defense is the ability to protect the rim. Nnoko and McDaniels, they’re very effective shot-blockers, especially those two.” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said.
This was Clemson’s third game with double-digit swats, and first since Nov. 21.
Before Dec. 19, Clemson was 0-3 in games decided by a single-digit margin, losing to UMass, Arkansas and Auburn. Since then, the Tigers are 3-0 in close games, beating Boston College, Virginia Tech and now the Demon Deacons.
“We’ve been opportunistic in finding some ways to win some close games, which is good,” Brownell said. “We’re still trying to grow as a team and improve. But certainly proud of how our guys have come back since Christmas.”
Brownell wasn’t as shocked by the preseason prognostication as McDaniels. He understood it, even knowing McDaniels and Rod Hall along with an improving bench would perform this well.
“I thought we were better than people thought, but there’s no way in not thinking that in some ways,” Brownell said. “When you look at our roster and who we lost and who we had coming back, there were a lot of question marks.”
Now the question marks are how well they’ll stack up against tough customers in Pitt, North Carolina and the Orange.
“There’s going to be highs and lows, there’s going to be tough games through the course of the league,” Brownell said. “It’s a grinder. You try to keep picking off as many as you can and see where you finally end up.”