After a 71-48 loss at Georgia on Dec. 22, Clemson center Landry Nnoko called a players-only meeting in the locker room before the Tigers could even board the bus back home.
The senior leader wanted the players to talk about a stretch of three losses in four games. And knowing they had to play North Carolina, Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke, Miami, Virginia and Pitt to start ACC play, the Tigers had to return from Christmas break with a different mindset.
That series of events has paid off in a big way for a team that’s won four consecutive conference games, including a win over No. 9 Duke on Wednesday. Clemson (11-6, 4-1 ACC) is currently tied for second place in the league heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. home showdown with No. 8 Miami on the ACC Network.
“As much as whatever was said (in that meeting),” Brownell said, “and as coaches we don’t know what was said and it’s probably good that we don’t, it’s just the fact that I would say, ‘Alright guys, we need to get on the bus in 30 minutes,’ and Nnoko tells me, ‘No we don’t, coach. We need a players’ meeting. We need you guys to leave.’ Just the fact that he would say that in the manner, like, ‘get out, I want to talk to the team’ … that at least started to establish something.”
Clemson returned from Christmas break with a clean slate. Players bought back into Brownell’s process of improving – not worrying about results. The Tigers went to No. 5 North Carolina and lost by 11 points. Not getting blown out, though, helped the psyche of this team, and Clemson ended a three-game losing skid with an impressive 84-75 win over Florida State on Jan. 2.
“Momentum is very powerful in this sport. It’s very powerful with young people,” Brownell said. “We had some negative momentum early in the season and couldn’t build any real positive vibe. (Beating FSU) told us that we are good, we beat a good team, take a deep breath, relax, go back to doing what we were doing and focus on what we do, because we have a chance to beat some good teams.”
The Tigers followed that by winning a 74-73 overtime thriller at Syracuse, and Clemson rode that momentum to a surprising 66-62 victory over No. 16 Louisville in Greenville on Jan. 10. That led to Wednesday’s 68-63 win over the Blue Devils; Clemson took advantage of Duke’s foul trouble, executed well offensively down the stretch and beat back-to-back ranked opponents for the first time since 1989.
A win over Miami (13-2, 2-1) at Bon Secours Wellness Arena would mark the first time in school history the Tigers have beaten three consecutive ranked teams. It would also extend the winning streak to five games for the first time since 1996-97 when Clemson started 5-0. It won’t be easy against the Hurricanes, who sport one of the best backcourts in the nation with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, and are coming off a 66-58 setback at Virginia, which ended Miami’s eight-game win streak.
For Clemson, Brownell said in this successful stretch, the players learned to handle the highs and lows that occur during games. He said early in the season, Clemson beat some inferior teams by so many points that it gave his squad a “false sense of worth,” and players weren’t rallying the team when things went bad on the court against better opponents.
“I told our guys before the year that was the most important thing we needed to change,” Brownell said. “Hopefully, now that’s starting to happen. Avry (Holmes) is more comfortable and he’s a vocal guy, so he’ll say some things. (Jordan) Roper is kind of a quiet guy, but he is starting to say more. And Landry Nnoko has been a big part of our voice.”
The Tigers are just getting over bad plays more. Long stretches without points are fewer and far between. Half-court execution has gotten better with the ball being in Roper’s hands more, and Jaron Blossomgame and Nnoko are getting more touches inside, which has opened up looks on the perimeter.
“We’re a confident team and we all believe in each other. It’s definitely showing,” said Blossomgame, who’s averaging 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. “Guys are just leading on the court. We’re not having any of the problems we had early in the season. And when we do have those problems, we quickly figure out a solution for them.”
Another key to this improved stretch of basketball is what Clemson’s done at the free-throw line – the Tigers have shot above their team average in the last five games, which has helped them close out wins late.
“Our margin for error is still smaller than some of the elite teams in our league,” Brownell said. “We still have to play a very high level of basketball to beat anybody in our league. Right now we’re playing well. We’re on a great roll. Obviously, we hope that continues.”