Tigers' toughest challenge lies ahead

Tigers' toughest challenge lies ahead

Basketball

Tigers' toughest challenge lies ahead

Clemson is coming off a historic performance against Auburn on Sunday night in San Diego.

The fifth-seeded ACC Tigers scored more points than they ever have in an NCAA Tournament game, while limiting the No. 4 seed SEC Tigers to a season-low point total, en route to an 84-53 win in the second round of the tournament at Viejas Arena. Not only is the 31-point margin of victory Clemson’s largest ever in an NCAA Tournament game, but it is also the largest margin of victory in any game versus a Top 25 team in school history.

The emphatic win sends Clemson to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. The Tigers will take on No. 1 seed Kansas, which is led by 13th-year Jayhawks coach Bill Self, at 7:07 p.m. Friday in Omaha, Neb.

“Excited about the upcoming weekend,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said Tuesday. “We’re playing an outstanding team in Kansas with very good players. They shoot the ball from 3 exceptionally well, play with great pace and energy. Bill has done a good job with this team, because they’re not your typical Kansas — big, high-low, motion, physical team — they’re more of a speed and 3-point shooting. He’s made some really good adjustments to how they play, and they’re hard to guard.

“But our guys are playing well. We’re coming off a great performance in San Diego. I couldn’t be more pleased with how our guys prepared leading up to it… Our guys were comfortable, and I thought our defense in the first half of the Auburn game was as good as it can be… It’s very rewarding for our guys to reach a Sweet 16, and just really looking forward to the game.”

The Tigers are playing their best basketball and riding a wave of momentum heading into the Sweet 16 matchup, but their toughest challenge of the tournament thus far lies ahead in the Jayhawks.

Kansas is led by senior guard Devonte’ Graham, the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year and only player in the country averaging 17-plus points, seven-plus assists, 1.7-plus steals and fewer than three turnovers per game.

Behind Graham, the Jayhawks have four other players averaging double-figure scoring: senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (15.0 points per game), sophomore guard Malik Newman (13.4), sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (13.2) and junior guard Lagerald Vick (12.1). Kansas typically deploys a four-guard starting lineup.

The Jayhawks defeated eigth-seeded Seton Hall 83-79 on Saturday night in the second round of the Midwest Region to reach their third consecutive Sweet 16. Though Graham shot just 1-for-7 from the field and 0-for-4 from 3-point range, Kansas managed to win thanks to 28 points from Newman, 16 points from Mykhailiuk, 13 more from Vick and clutch shooting down the stretch.

“They’re really good and really hard to stop because they have multiple weapons,” Brownell said. “But obviously Newman has played well and shot it well, and Vick has shot it better here lately. So, they’re really clicking on a lot of cylinders in terms of offensive basketball.”

Kansas also benefited against Seton Hall from the performance of Azubuike, who played only three minutes in the Jayhawks’ first-round victory over Pennsylvania due to a lingering knee injury.

The 7-foot Azubuike, who had only practiced once in 11 days prior to the Seton Hall game, contributed 10 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals and two assists in 22 minutes of action.

“It’s obviously another piece that presents a whole other set of problems,” Brownell said of Azubuike. “He’s huge… Certainly he provides a whole other level of offense that you’ve got to deal with. His size, physicality and strength… He’s a problem.”

Kansas has won 14 consecutive Big 12 titles dating to 2005 and made the NCAA Tournament 29 straight seasons from 1990-2018, both NCAA record streaks.

Self has taken the Jayhawks to the Sweet 16 three times, the Elite 8 five times and the Final Four twice. Kansas won the national title in 2008 under Self.

Clemson knows it will have its hands full on Friday. But despite the daunting challenge in front of them, and fact they will be making just their fourth ever appearance in the Sweet 16, the Tigers aren’t intimidated heading into the Sweet 16 showdown.

“They’re a great team. They win their conference every year,” said Clemson senior guard Gabe DeVoe, who has scored 22 points in each of his team’s first two tournament games. “But with a good week of practice and game planning, I think we’ll be ready to go.”

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