CLEMSON — The Clemson men’s basketball team (14-8, 4-5 ACC) is playing its best basketball of the season, which is exactly what the Tigers have to do if they want to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament after starting ACC play 1-5.
Since that abysmal beginning, the Tigers have reeled off three straight wins in dominant fashion, starting with an 82-69 victory over Pittsburgh, followed by a 64-37 rout of Wake Forest and ending with a 65-42 win at Georgia Tech.
While the Tigers have not been as consistent as many had thought they would be on offense — averaging only 71 points per game, despite returning two of the league’s top guards and center — the thing that has led the resurgence is defense.
“Obviously, I thought defensively we were very locked in and played with great energy (in the win over Georgia Tech). The activity level was high,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “I didn’t think we gave them anything easy. Offensively, I thought we had spurts when we were very good tonight, and there were a couple spurts when we weren’t. I thought we started the game in a good place. The beginning of the second half we struggled a little bit, but we found our rhythm in the middle.
“We played through Eli [Thomas’] foul trouble, which is hard for us to do sometimes, so that was good to see. Just a well-played game by my team. I thought we came in here with a pretty good plan and our guys executed pretty well.”
The defense being “locked in” has been the biggest change over the three-game winning streak.
In fact, the Tigers allowed a total of 79 points in their last two wins, a stat that has helped the team not only climb up the ACC’s defensive standings, currently fifth in the league (66.4 points per game allowed), but the league’s overall standings.
“Our guys have really bought into what we’re trying to do,” Brownell said. “Our margin for error is — we’re not one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. We really have to click on all cylinders defensively and make it hard for people. We had an unbelievable first half against Pitt and not a very good second half. We defended Wake [Forest] well and we defended [Georgia Tech] very well. We understand that playing that way gives us a much better chance to win. Hopefully our guys are going to continue to do that.”
The Tigers’ recent run of success has helped them climb out 11th place, where they sat after their 1-5 start, to eighth in the league and out of the first day of play in the ACC Tournament.
“Hopefully, (winning three straight games) just builds confidence as much as anything,” Brownell said. “It’s not easy on players and this is an unforgiving league. You can have a great week of practice, play two games against very good teams and play well and lose. That’s not easy when you’re coaching to keep the guys’ morale going. I’m proud of our guys. We have an older team with some pride, so I think when we were 1-5 our pride took over.
“Now that we’ve won three in a row, we feel a little better about who we are and how we’re playing. We just want to continue that. The best way to do that is to have really good practices and we’ve had really good practices throughout most of the ACC season.”
The Tigers return to action Saturday (noon, EPSN2) against Virginia Tech in a game that can get Clemson back to .500 (5-5) in league play.