BY AARON BRENNER
CLEMSON – Before the Tigers embark on their brutal upcoming stretch of five road games in 22 days (four against teams that have spent time in the top 25 this year), a little Monday morning validation from the biggest name in college basketball.
“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.”
The question was not about Clemson, but about the ACC’s progression in general during a perceived “down” year for the league. Only three ACC teams are ranked – No. 2 Syracuse, No. 18 Duke and No. 20 Pittsburgh – and two of them are new members this year. Virginia got one vote at No. 25, the only other ACC team listed on any of the latest 65 Associated Press ballots released Monday.
Clemson (13-4, 4-1 ACC) is not on the elite radar, but it’s one of the surprises of the season thus far, and Krzyzewski – whose Blue Devils lost at Littlejohn Coliseum 72-59 Jan. 11 – has taken note.
The all-time Division I wins leader and 4-time NCAA champion was asked to elaborate.
“I think they’re established in what (head coach Brad Brownell) wants to do,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s an outstanding coach; everywhere he’s gone, after he’s been there for a few years, he’s had his system take root, he’s always been really good.”
Krzyzewski had a nod as well for Clemson’s leading scorer, rebounder and blocker in junior forward K.J. McDaniels.
“They’re very athletic. They’re smart,” Krzyzewski said. “And they have two of the best shot-blockers in the conference (McDaniels and Landry Nnoko), and I think one of the best players in the conference in McDaniels. He’s a big-time pro prospect.”
Brownell is now 231-134 for his career, and 64-49 at Clemson. The Tigers lead the nation in scoring defense (53.5 points allowed per game) and 3-point shooting defense. Clemson was 29-33 the previous two seasons.
“I think it starts from the tough-mindedness of Brad and his staff, and developing a system over these few years he’s been there,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s finally established, and I think he has good kids, they believe in him, they work hard, they don’t make many mistakes, and they’re tough to score against. That’s pretty much been what he has done in his previous stops as a coach.
“So it doesn’t surprise me, because I think a lot of him and what he’s done over the years.”
Clemson does not play at Duke this year, but it faces No. 20 Pittsburgh Tuesday and North Carolina Sunday, both away from home.