- Associated Press - Monday, January 20, 2014

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson is off to a surprising, 4-1 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Now, the Tigers’ chances of remaining in the league chase will be significantly tested during a three-week road stretch at some of the conference’s most difficult venues.

The gauntlet begins Tuesday night at No. 20 Pittsburgh, then heads to North Carolina on Sunday where the Tigers have never won in 56 previous meetings. There’s a stop at Florida State on February 1st before Clemson’s briefly returns home to play Georgia Tech on Feb. 4. Then it’s back on the road for visits to No. 2 Syracuse on February 9th and Notre Dame two days later.

Coach Brad Brownell likes Clemson’s early focus. He believes if it continues, the Tigers can have a special season few saw coming after they were picked to finish 14th in the 15-team league back in October.

“We’re off to a good start and we’re playing well,” Brownell said. “But it’s a long distance race and we have some tough games coming up.”

The Tigers (13-4) stand tied for second with Pitt and Virginia, a game behind unbeaten Syracuse (5-0). They’ve benefited from a soft stretch - only one of their four league victories has come against a school over .500 in ACC play - but have held on for road wins at Boston College and Virginia Tech.

The one eye-opener was a 72-59 home win over then No. 16 Duke on Jan. 11. The Tigers broke away from a tight game with their signature, in-your face defense (they lead the country in fewest points allowed) and the play of high-flying K.J. McDaniels, the junior forward who’s eighth in ACC scoring at 16.7 points a game.

“We’re all prepared for it,” McDaniels said. “I feel we’re mature enough to go on the road and play with the same energy we have” at home.

Brownell was not shy about his displeasure over this scheduling quirk before the season began.

“I was not real happy with that,” he said in discussing the season back in October.

Some of his reticence may have been facing teams like Syracuse, North Carolina and Notre Dame with very little experienced depth on the roster. There’s not a senior in the regular rotation with McDaniels and point guard Rod Hall the team’s only true third-year players. Add to that the mid-season transfer of guard Devin Coleman and the Tigers don’t have has many options when players are slumping as the coach would like.

Clemson’s course appeared shaky in December with losses at Arkansas and Auburn. Things rebounded once ACC play began. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was very impressed with the Tigers’ makeup.

“A huge story is how well Clemson has done,” Krzyzewski said Monday. “They’re a program right now, not a team.”

Clemson has gotten recent boosts from freshman Jaron Blossomgame and sophomore Adonis Filer.

Blossomgame was one of Brownell’s top recruits in 2012, but missed last season as a redshirt because of a broken leg. It has taken Blossomgame, who needed a second surgery this summer to speed up healing, some time to get going and he’s made a big impact in the Duke win with career highs of 14 points and 14 rebounds.

Filer, a reserve guard, had the tie-breaking, three-point play in the final two minutes as Clemson won at Virginia Tech, 56-49, last Wednesday night.

It was McDaniels who pulled things out Saturday against Wake Forest with 15 points and 12 rebounds as Clemson moved to 4-1 in ACC play for the first time since Rick Barnes was head coach in 1997-98.

Brownell knows these next few weeks won’t be easy. He said his players seemed tired Monday when they got together to go over plans for Pitt and hopes that changes when they arrive at these different ACC arenas.

“We’re going to have to show a lot of toughness and maturity and play exceptionally well to come out of this well,” he said.

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