Clemson’s up-and-down season to this point may be starting to level out.
There have been blowout wins and victories over fellow high-major programs. Clemson has also lost out on opportunities for others with repetitive double-digit leads that have slipped away. Lately, though, the Tigers have experienced more of the former.
With its rout of South Carolina over the weekend, Clemson (8-4, 0-1 ACC) kept its momentum going into the second and most important half of its season. The Tigers’ three-game winning streak heading into tonight’s game at Virginia (7-4, 1-0) is their second-longest of the season, trailing only their 5-0 start to the season.
“I think it’s good for us,” forward Hunter Tyson said. “I think the guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we’ve just got to keep doing that.”
Clemson’s current win streak includes its best two of the season – Drake and Carolina, who rank 103rd and 111th in the latest NET rankings, respectively – after the Tigers, coughing up sizable second-half leads in each, missed out on wins over St. Bonaventure, Miami and West Virginia, which sits at No. 42 in the NET. The games against St. Bonaventure and West Virginia were played before Thanksgiving while the five-point loss at Miami was three weeks ago.
One of the biggest differences between then and now, players say, is more cohesion among a group that wasn’t all that familiar with one another at the start of the season.
“It takes time,” Tyson said.
Clemson lost two starters off last season’s NCAA Tournament team, including all-ACC forward Aamir Simms. But that was just the beginning of the attrition.
With six lettermen no longer around, the Tigers turned over half of their roster. Clemson replaced them with seven newcomers, including a pair of transfers in guard David Collins and forward Naz Bohannon. Collins, who spent the previous four seasons at South Florida, was immediately inserted into the starting lineup and has been there ever since.
And with Simms gone, sophomore PJ Hall, a former top-75 national recruit out of nearby Spartanburg, stepped in as a first-time starter in the frontcourt after averaging just 9.9 minutes per game a season ago.
“It’s not easy to just come straight in with multiple guys who are coming in where they are the best player on their team coming into another program,” Hall said. “Everyone has to buy into their own role. So it’s not you just go onto the court and gel. It takes a little time, but we’re getting there for sure.”
After scoring just 10 points apiece in losses to West Virginia and Rutgers, Hall has averaged 17.2 points over the last four games and leads five Tigers averaging double figures on the season. Clemson also ranks fifth out of 350 Division I teams in 3-point field-goal percentage (41.4), sixth in the ACC in scoring (75.9 points per game) and, after pulling down a season-high 51 boards the last time out against Carolina, in the top half of the ACC in rebounding (37 per game).
The Tigers aren’t perfect. Long scoring droughts are still an issue at times. Clemson had to go to overtime to finish off the win against Drake after going the final 6 minutes, 34 seconds of regulation without a bucket. And Carolina nearly cut a 25-point deficit in the second half to single digits, getting within 11 points late before Clemson extended its lead again.
The Tigers, who began the week ranked 67th in the NET, will have to start maximizing their in-conference opportunities if they plan on building a legitimate postseason resume. Wednesday’s game, which has been moved up to a 7 p.m. start, starts a string of 19 straight ACC games to end the regular season, and Virginia is one of eight top-100 NET teams in the conference. Duke (twice), North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are also still on the schedule, which are shaping up to be chances at Quad-1 wins.
But Clemson likes where it is a lot more now than where it used to be.
“Just little things that we’re kind of getting used to,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We’ve been pressed a lot of times now. We’ve had to do a lot of things. You kind of just get used to your team as you get into 10 or 12 games. I think we’re starting to figure our team out pretty well.”
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