CLEMSON — It’s been obvious for a while these next three weeks would go a long way in defining Clemson’s basketball season.
On the bright side, late January approaches and the Tigers matter. Clemson (13-4, 4-1 ACC) is tied for second in the ACC standings, garnering the league’s attention by topping Duke and stealing a couple road wins within the conference on its way to equaling all of last year’s win total with at least 14 games remaining.
“A huge story is how well Clemson has done,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference. “They’re a program right now, not a team.”
Are the Tigers for real? Ask again on Valentine’s Day. Here it comes, that dreaded five-out-of-six on the road trip, one of just two ACC teams (North Carolina State’s the other) saddled with such a stretch.
“We’re going to have to find a lot of grit,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We’re going to show a lot of toughness and maturity, and play exceptionally well to come out of this well.”
The biggest challenge: location, location, location. First up is the Petersen Events Center, home of No. 20 Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1) for the last 12 years.
“People don’t realize,” Brownell said, “Pitt is one of the best home courts in all of college basketball.”
The Panthers are 11-0 at home this year and 191-22 (.897 winning percentage) all-time, trailing only Gonzaga for the nation’s best winning percentage for a team in its current venue.
“Their fans are great and their team is good. That’s a potent combination,” said Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, whose Demon Deacons lost at Pittsburgh by 15 and at Clemson by 8 the past two Saturdays. “I enjoy playing at Pitt — I mean that from the sense of there’s great passion, great energy, great support and that’s fun for everybody.”
In a sports-crazed city without a pro basketball team, Pitt is the show on the hardwood.
“We do take great pride. We have great fans. We’re sold out every game, we have a waiting list of 11,000, 12,000 (for season tickets,)” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “So there’s an unbelievable demand, our student section’s right on the floor with the best seats in the house, which is unique in itself.”
Then it’s off to North Carolina Sunday. Ho-hum. The Tar Heels are an incredible 56-0 at home against Clemson.
That’s a fascinating number, but UNC’s pretty comfortable in its own digs against anyone. Just not lately.
The Tar Heels are 347-62 at Dean Smith Center (84.8 percent success), though it’s been a down year: UNC is 8-3 in Chapel Hill with losses to unranked Belmont, Texas and Miami, just the third time in Roy Williams’ 11 years the Tar Heels (11-7, 1-4) have succumbed at least three times at home.
But North Carolina is the country’s great enigma this winter, has beaten No. 14 Kentucky at home, No. 12 Louisville on a neutral floor and No. 3 Michigan State on the road.
Next week for Clemson, it’s a trip to Florida State on Feb. 1, then back home against Georgia Tech before two more tough customers in Syracuse and Notre Dame. The Tigers have never visited either venue.
Brownell has gritted his teeth at this scheduling nuance, but there are plenty of kooky hands being dealt across the league. Besides N.C. State also in enemy territory for five out of six, Notre Dame and Syracuse each have a three-game road trip – the Orange play at Duke and Maryland in a three-day span in late February.
Get a load of Georgia Tech’s slate: a four-game homestand in February (Clemson closes it Feb. 22), a three-game homestand in mid-January, a four-game road trip over the holidays and a three-game road trip going into March, including Florida State and Syracuse 49 hours apart (Tallahassee to Syracuse flight: 981 miles.)
“In this league, you better be resilient,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “Sometimes there’s not a lot of time in between. You better be able to put that last game behind you and move on.”
Once Clemson comes home from Notre Dame on Feb. 11, the team finishes with five home games in its final seven contests leading into the ACC tournament.
“When you have this kind of difficult stretch, you would hope at some point it will balance itself out. It helps us a little bit at the end,” Brownell said.
“Hopefully if we do well in this stretch, we’ll have a chance to do something special with the last three weeks of the season.”