In one sense, it was a glorious day to be associated with Clemson basketball. In another sense, it was a nerve-racking day.
Let me explain.
The buzz was palpable inside of Littlejohn Coliseum, replete with its ginormous, mega-large curved LED scoreboard, new crowd seating that added some fire to the proceedings, and a fresh atmosphere that exuded a sense of newness and growth. People were ready to go. The line to enter the student gate was a traffic hazard more than an hour before tipoff.
That’s where the nerves kick in, though, because at some point, reality sets in. You can’t lose this game—not if you’re Brad Brownell (who pined for years for a facility that would rival even the teams in the middle of his league), not if you’re one of the heralded transfers making debuts, not if you’re Jaron Blossomgame’s senior self who passed up a likely NBA paycheck to play here. The first memory made in the new building can’t be a loss.
Brownell joked that there was a space reserved on the wall in the men’s basketball offices for an arena picture from Opening Night, but that “you can’t do that if you lose”. Make no mistake. There was pressure in this building, even if all the good vibes muted it.
Clemson overcame said pressure with a performance that will look even better in a few months than it does right now. The 74-64 win over Georgia will get a seal of approval from the punditry for one of two reasons. Either the Bulldogs will be better than they were on Friday night—Mark Fox lamented his team’s approach, saying he didn’t prepare his players well enough to win on the road and citing a lack of poise as a key contributor in the loss—or the Tigers will be significantly better once Shelton Mitchell returns from a knee injury.
Mitchell’s absence meant the Tigers needed one-on-one playmakers to rise up on the wing, and they did. Marcquise Reed was a force. He dropped in 19 points. Gabe Devoe flashed a well-rounded offensive game. Blossomgame was, well, Blossomgame, albeit a less productive version given the diversity of options that flanked him.
Avry Holmes pulled double duty, running the show efficiently and helping stifle the Bulldogs’ top playmaker, JJ Frazier. The diminutive point guard managed only 11 points on 13 shots and turned the ball over four times. Fox was unhappy with his best player’s performance and gave the Tigers partial credit for making him uncomfortable.
Not all was rosy in Littlejohn on Friday night. Clemson’s defensive rebounding wasn’t ideal, especially in the second half. Having a bench full of players who can’t play—Mitchell, Elijah Thomas (transfer eligible in December), Ty Hudson (suspension), and even Legend Robertin, who may have suffered a concussion early in the second half—took its toll until the Tigers caught their collective second wind down the stretch.
But the team never trailed. It never seemed in jeopardy of losing the lead. The one time Georgia cut it to three, Reed answered with a personal 7-0 run that lasted less than a minute.
Few teams will learn as much about themselves as Clemson did on Friday night. It will likely learn even more shortly, with tests galore waiting a week from now in Orlando. But for a team with aspirations, it comes with the territory.
Hang that photo, Brad Brownell.
— Photo Credit: Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports