CLEMSON - It all started in Rome. With one more win, it'll end in New York City.
The journey began in July with pre-international trip practices, and is still rolling strong as Clemson's men's basketball team is still playing, something only a handful of teams around the country can say.
Little did the Tigers (22-12) realize their challenging circumstances last summer might actually aid their cause in Tuesday's 7 p.m. NIT quarterfinal showdown with visiting Belmont (26-9) at Littlejohn Coliseum, with the winner bound for the semis April 1 at Madison Square Garden.
Clemson was significantly shorthanded in the frontcourt for its 10-day, five-city, four-game tour through Italy in August.
Redshirt freshman forward Jaron Blossomgame was not quite healed from a broken leg, so he accompanied his teammates on the trip but didn't suit up. Center Sidy Djitte had a hold-up with his travel Visa and forward Ibrahim Djambo was not yet enrolled in classes.
That left center Landry Nnoko and forward Josh Smith as the only true bigs, meaning swingman K.J. McDaniels had to shift to the '4' position in droves along with three guards.
"It teaches me to read the game better, seeing the advantages and disadvantages," McDaniels said. "Playing the 4 is a lot different, especially through the whole game, but I'm learning as I go along."
So there was plenty of smallball across the pond.
"Because Jaron didn't play in Italy, we played more fast-paced, and guys are used to doing it," shooting guard Jordan Roper said. "K.J.'s a versatile player, is the biggest thing. He's able to play the 4 because of his athleticism."
With Blossomgame out Sunday with a bruised leg, McDaniels was right back at power forward against Illinois.
"I like the smaller lineup, but Jaron's a good rebounder," point guard Rod Hall said. "With a smaller lineup, it kind of gets us going faster, everybody can go off the dribble and penetrate and kick. But we're missing a big rebounder."
It'll probably play out that way again Tuesday against the Bruins, never hesitant to launch the 3-ball and loaded with superbly efficient scorers around the rim.
"Outstanding shooting team. They space the court and play with great pace," head coach Brad Brownell said of Belmont. "They shoot the first good shot they get. Scrappy, and a confident team that plays with swagger, as you would expect."
Pairing Roper and Damarcus Harrison in the starting lineup paid off in spurts; the '2' guards have exchanged hot shooting nights throughout the year, and they might have to co-exist again based on Blossomgame's absence and the Belmont matchup.
"That stretch where I wasn't playing a lot, it was just opportunities," said Roper, averaging 10.2 points his last five games after totaling just four points the previous six outings.
"We have depth. That's part of our team. Damarcus Harrison stepped up and started playing very well, and that was huge for us. (Freshman) Austin Ajukwa is a special talent too. Guys can rotate in and out . I just tried to stay positive through the whole course."
The Tigers have been in win-or-go-home mode, truly, since the start of March, when their three-game homestand was make-or-break for their NCAA hopes.
"That's what we've been talking about for the last few weeks," Nnoko said. "Just keep trying to fight hard and advance."
The team plane touched down in Rome nearly eight months ago to start this season. With 40 more good minutes against Belmont, Clemson's final destination will be America's largest metropolitan.
"We knew we were picked 14th (in the preseason ACC poll.) None of us really believed in that," Roper said. "We knew how good we were, and what we could do if we played well.
"I think we're having a great year, and our goal is to finish in New York."
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