Surprising Clemson on top with best ACC start

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Clemson coach Brad Brownell’s had a landmark ACC start at exactly the right time.

The Tigers (14-3) lead the Atlantic Coast Conference at 6-0, the only undefeated team in league play. And it follows an underachieving 2021-22 season when athletic director Graham Neff put the program on notice that making the NCAA Tournament was a prime directive.

Message received: The Tigers are off to their best ACC mark since joining the league in 1953.

“Our kids have gotten better and their approach has been fantastic,” Brownell said. “There’s a belief in what we’re doing and we’re reaping that.”

Clemson faces its first ranked ACC team this season against No. 24 Duke.

Picked 11th in the ACC in the preseason, fifth-year forward Hunter Tyson has averaged a double-double with 16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds a game. The 6-foot-8 graduate student has gotten double-doubles in Clemson’s past five contests, including road wins at Virginia Tech and Pitt.

Clemson took a dip last season (17-16 and out of the postseason) when Tyson broke his collarbone in February and missed eight games.

Now, Tyson is healthy and confident in what he can accomplish.

“I do whatever it takes to help my team win,” Tyson said. “If that’s me really hitting the glass hard and getting a lot of rebounds, that’s what I’ll do. That’s happened a lot lately.”

Brownell is in his 13th season – only Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Virginia’s Tony Bennett have been in the ACC longer – with just three NCAA appearances, the last coming in 2021.

He readily acknowledges many think his Tigers should’ve won more than they have over the years. Yet, Brownell’s had four seasons of double-digit wins in ACC play after only three in Clemson’s first 57 league seasons.

Brownell is also the only Clemson coach with a win at North Carolina, breaking the Tigers’ embarrassing 0-59 mark at Chapel Hill in January 2020.

So Brownell won’t get ahead of himself with the Tigers hot start. “We’re not going to get too high or too low at this point,” he said.

The February schedule includes games against No. 16 Miami and No. 13 Virginia. And there’s a return to North Carolina, the expected ACC champion that’s had an up-and-down season so far.

Clemson point guard Chase Hunter won’t concede any let downs, the way his team is playing at the moment.

“We definitely had big goals, big dreams for the season,” he said.

Brownell has tapped the portal in the past to bolster his roster, but this year’s squad has only one transfer in the rotation in former College of Charleston and Boston College guard Brevin Galloway. The rest of the starters are experienced players who’ve stuck with the Tigers and developed their talent, such as Tyson, Hunter and forward PJ Hall.

Hall, a 6-10 junior, had surgery to repair a bone fracture in his left foot. As he recovered in July, Hall suffered a partial dislocation of a kneecap that also required an operation.

Yet, Hall has played in all but one of the games, averaging 12.4 points and leading the team with 16 blocks.

Brownell said there were plenty of days in the offseason when Hall wondered if it was all worth it. But Hall worked “because he wants to be with our team,” the coach said. “That’s why we have a good team, because of the character of our team.”

Win or lose to Duke, the season doesn’t stop, Brownell said. But he believes the team’s shared experience through the years can sustain them even during the grind of the ACC season.

“Our guys have been here,” he said. “We’re a rare group. We’re happy to watch kids get better and experience success.”

Surprising Clemson on top with best ACC start originally appeared on NBCSports.com