CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson guard Tanner Smith knows the Tigers aren't experts in the motion offense. Still, the junior thinks the team has picked up first-year coach Brad Brownell's schemes quicker than some may have expected.
That's one reason for Clemson's success.
"Maybe we're 'A' students now," Smith said Friday. "We'll see how it goes."
With about a week left in the regular season, the Tigers are vying for a first-round bye in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and a spot in the NCAAs. The stretch starts Saturday against Wake Forest, the Tigers' first game since a rousing road win at Miami last Sunday.
Bidding for an NCAA spot was not where some, including Smith, thought Clemson (18-9, 7-6 ACC) would be so late in the season. Not after longtime coach Oliver Purnell left for DePaul and the team's star, Trevor Booker, became a first-round NBA draft pick.
"I definitely had some questions," Smith said.
Clemson was picked to finish seventh in the ACC. There were several reasons, including the unknown quantity of Brownell, hired from Wright State to replace Purnell, and the question over who would pick up the offensive punch of Booker, the power forward who led the Tigers with 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds a game last year.
Things looked even worse early on. Brownell could not hold on to promising Purnell recruit Marcus Thornton while long-range shooter Noel Johnson decided to transfer less than a month into the season.
There were three straight awful defeats to Michigan, rival South Carolina and Florida State where the Tigers appeared lost in the offensive flow.
"It was a transition, no doubt about that," Smith said. "But we had some people who were battle tested and wanted to succeed."
The Tigers reeled off eight straight victories, including a 2-0 start in ACC play. They defeated a ranked team in Florida State on Jan. 29 and are a game behind Virginia Tech for fourth place, which would mean an opening round rest when the ACC tournament starts.
"We're on the bubble, or whatever, so we have a lot of work to do before we worry about those kinds of things," Brownell said.
The Tigers have been particularly sharp at home, winning five of six so far with the Demon Deacons (1-12 in the league) on Saturday and the Hokies left at Littlejohn Coliseum a week later.
Despite the transition, Brownell never eased up on expectations. But he didn't inflate them, either, always placing the emphasis on gradual improvement over how high the Tigers might go.
He's not changing that now with Clemson in sight of a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
"Both collectively and individually, we still have to get more guys playing consistently well for us to challenge in the ACC tournament or things of that nature," the coach said.
The Tigers have been led by seniors in point guard Demontez Stitt and forward Jerai Grant. Stitt, a slasher who's best at driving the lane, is the team's top scorer at 14 points a game. Grant, the 6-foot-8 son of former Oklahoma standout Harvey, is right behind at 12 points a game and leads the club in rebounding (6.5 average).
Smith says the team's epiphany came when they discovered that tightening defense would mean easier baskets and a better offensive flow. The Tigers lead the ACC in scoring defense giving up just 60.2 points a game, 2 points a game ahead of Florida State and Virginia.
Clemson's players believe in what their coaches are teaching and it shows on the court. Smith said the Tigers were angry about fumbling away a 69-61 loss at North Carolina State last week after leading for a good part of the contest. Instead of crumbling, Smith said the team channeled efforts into last Sunday's 63-59 win at Miami.
"The energy is there. The focus is really there," Smith said. "We can't dwell on the games we gave away. We're still in control of our destiny and I think we're ready."