Friedlander: Yep, that's Clemson sitting atop the ACC standings. And it's not football
Clemson is the only ACC team still unbeaten in league play, sitting alone atop the conference with a 5-0 record.
That wouldn’t necessarily be headline-grabbing news if we were talking about football, where Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have won 7 of the past 8 ACC championships.
But this is men’s basketball, a sport whose loftiest perch usually is occupied by blue bloods, not teams wearing orange Tiger paws.
Yes, it’s early.
That doesn’t change the fact that it’s Clemson, not North Carolina, Duke or Virginia, staring down at everyone else in the standings.
Coach Brad Brownell’s surprising team earned that right Saturday with a gritty 75-74 road win at Pittsburgh in an unlikely matchup of the final 2 teams without an ACC loss.
The Tigers did it by rallying from an 8-point deficit during the final 6 minutes, with contributions from sources both expected and unexpected.
It was a game that looked every bit the part of a showdown between league leaders and NCAA Tournament contenders, even though those league leaders are teams that were picked to finish 11th and 14th in the preseason poll.
Let’s not get carried away, though. At least not yet.
It’s a realistic possibility that 1 or both the Tigers and Panthers will revert to their expected norms and fall back into the pack. The way these teams are built, there’s just as much a chance that they’re in this for the long haul.
All the way up to Selection Sunday.
They’re both stocked with veteran talent and boast multiple All-ACC-caliber performers. They both shoot and make a lot of 3s, are among the top half of the league in scoring defense and can look forward to the return of key players currently out of their respective lineups.
And oh yes, they’re both playing with the urgency that comes with having coaches whose jobs likely are on the line.
Clemson’s resiliency was on full display late Saturday.
It battled back to tie the score at 69 on a basket by freshman forward Chauncey Wiggins, who had played in only 8 of his team’s 1st 15 games and was on the floor only because Ian Schieffelin had fouled out and Alex Hemenway was sidelined with plantar fasciitis.
The Tigers (13-3, 5-0 ACC) then turned to stars PJ Hall, Chase Hunter and Hunter Tyson to quiet a hostile crowd – adorned in yellow shirts with the No. 3 inside a heart in a show of support for recovering former Panthers football star Damar Hamlin – to finish the job.
Hunter led the way with 17 points while both Hall and Tyson contributed double-doubles.
— Clemson Basketball (@ClemsonMBB) January 7, 2023
“We had to play at a very high level to win,” Brownell said after the game, adding that it was “a well-played game by both teams. … Thankfully I have some older guys who played well down the stretch.”
Pitt (11-5, 4-1) has its share of veterans as well and several of them distinguished themselves throughout the back-and-forth game – including point guard Jamarius Burton, who finished with 28 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
The difference is that while Clemson’s most experienced players are homegrown, the Panthers’ roster is stocked with free agents brought in from the transfer portal.
Of their top 6 scorers, only forward John Hugley – who currently is out dealing with a personal issue – started his career at Pitt. The others are imports, with 4 of them playing in their 1st season with the program.
It took them a few games to mesh into a cohesive unit. But after losing 3 of their 1st 4 games, coach Jeff Capel seems to have hit on a successful combination. The Panthers had won 10 of their previous 11 games coming into Saturday.
And because 2 of those victories currently are Quad 1 results, against UNC and Virginia, they’re still in a better position than Clemson when it comes to the NCAA bubble despite the 1-point loss.
“It’s really cool to be in a moment like this,” said Capel, who like Brownell is well on his way to turning down the temperature on a seat that was hotter than Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium when it’s filled to capacity. “Hopefully, we can continue to play well and have more moments like this.”
His Panthers won’t have to wait for their next “moment.” On Wednesday, they’ll travel to Cameron, where Capel spent both his college career and nearly a decade as Mike Krzyzewski’s top assistant, for a date with Duke.
Clemson’s toughest tests also are yet to come, including a visit by Duke to Littlejohn Coliseum next Saturday.
If the Tigers still are perched alone atop the ACC standings after that, with the Panthers close behind in hot pursuit, it might be time for the blue bloods – along with everyone else, including the poll voters and bracketologists – to start taking both a little more seriously.