Clemson University

Tigers smell postseason, but must avoid collapse

Georgia Tech's Moe Miller struggles to get away from Clemson's Cliff Hammonds. The Tigers topped the Yellow Jackets to jump into a third-place tie in the ACC.
Georgia Tech's Moe Miller struggles to get away from Clemson's Cliff Hammonds. The Tigers topped the Yellow Jackets to jump into a third-place tie in the ACC.

CLEMSON -- Last year's meltdown taught Clemson a lesson about counting its chickens.

That has not precluded the Tigers from looking at their row of eggs in anticipation of what might hatch.

Shortly following its lopsided victory Thursday night against Georgia Tech, junior guard K.C. Rivers was asked if Clemson (18-6, 6-4 ACC) could see an NCAA tournament berth at the end of the tunnel.

"It's more than within reach," Rivers said. "It's right there at our grasp. You can taste it, you can grab it, it's right there."

Unless, of course, the Tigers' forthcoming road swing renders Rivers' visions a mirage.

Beginning with today's 3 p.m. game at N.C. State (15-9, 4-6), Clemson has four of its next five games on the road before closing out its conference slate at home against Virginia Tech.

The Tigers have lived up to the expectation for a breakthrough campaign thus far. They are tied with Maryland for third in the ACC standings and have won three of their last four conference games by an average margin of 22.7 points.

In the 17 years the ACC has had a 16-game schedule, Clemson has been 6-4 or better just one other time -- 1996-97, when it started 6-4 and reached the NCAA tourney with a 9-7 conference record.

"So far, we're hanging in there," coach Oliver Purnell said.

Only two ACC teams have failed to make the NCAAs with an above-.500 league record (Florida State in 2006 and Virginia in 2000) since at-large bids were introduced, so odds would favor the Tigers advancing if they split their final six games.

Clemson would figure a no-brainer at its present state, especially considering what wins against Big Ten leader Purdue and SEC West leader Mississippi State do for its nonconference resume.

But there is no telling to what degree subsequent losses could damage its strong No. 22 RPI ranking.

Take away the Terps and Clemson's remaining ACC opponents have a combined 19-29 league record -- an indicator to why both ESPN and CollegeRPI.com include only four ACC teams as NCAA qualifiers in their current fields.

Although the Tigers might only need to claim one road victory if they take care of business at Littlejohn Coliseum, they certainly do not want to leave anything to chance.

They are a mere 1-3 on the ACC road this season and have failed to post a winning conference road record since 1986-87, getting at least three wins just three times since.

To boot, Clemson has lost 10 straight games in which it has just a one-day turnaround, dating to 1986. Purnell does not expect the brief layover to be a factor, though, as N.C. State is likewise coming off an 82-65 defeat Thursday at Boston College.

"We're ahead of everybody we play but Maryland, so I guess those are games we're supposed to win," senior guard Cliff Hammonds said. "But every game in the ACC on the road is hard to win.

"It's a pretty big stretch for us, just knowing our history on the road. We've got to change that. We have to go out and be road warriors."

CLEMSON GAMEDAY

CLEMSON (18-6, 6-4 ACC) AT N.C. STATE (15-9, 4-6)

• When: 3 p.m.

• Where: RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.

• TV: CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)

• On the Web: Live Gametracker stats at clemsontigers.com

• Tickets: Available at the box office

• Clemson's probable starters: G Cliff Hammonds 6-3 Sr. (12.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G K.C. Rivers 6-5 Jr. (15.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg); C Trevor Booker 6-7 So. (11.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg); F James Mays 6-9 Sr. (10.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg); F Sam Perry 6-5 Jr. (2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg)

• N.C. State's probable starters: G Gavin Grant 6-7 Sr. (14.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg); G Javier Gonzalez 6-0 Fr. (3.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg); G Courtney Fells 6-5 Jr. (11.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Ben McCauley 6-9 Jr. (6.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg); F J.J. Hickson 6-9 Fr. (15.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg)

• Notes: The Tigers rebounded strongly from a double-overtime loss at North Carolina by manhandling Georgia Tech, but now face an extremely short turnaround. ... N.C. State has lost two straight, the last 82-65 at Boston College. ... Clemson is in the midst of four road games among the next five. ... Hammonds continues to play well and anchor the team at point guard, although previous starter Demontez Stitt is close to 100 percent and is averaging around 20 minutes per game. ... The Tigers are tied for third place in the ACC with Maryland, who hosts Florida State today. ... The game should be an entertaining match of big men, with Mays and Booker on Hickson and Brandon Costner. ... Clemson won the first matchup 70-54 on Jan. 15.

• Up next: Clemson plays at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Florida State.

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