The Massachusetts Minutemen and Clemson Tigers are preparing to face off in the finals of the Charleston Classic, and although few observers expected either team to reach the tournament’s championship, either team could make a big statement with a win.
The Tigers were very lightly regarded coming into the year. Most analysts projected they’d finish as one of the ACC’s bottom three teams after their leading scorer in 2012, Devin Booker, graduated.
However, Clemson claimed double-digit wins over the Temple Owls and Davidson Wildcats to make its way to the finals. Junior K.J. McDaniels has been a revelation on both offense and defense, averaging 21 points in the tournament.
The Minutemen have been even more impressive in the event. They kicked things off with a win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and then clobbered the 19th-ranked New Mexico Lobos 81-65.
Many saw potential in UMass, but the Minutemen were largely viewed as a second-tier contender in the Atlantic 10 conference. Now, with one impressive win already under their belts, they’ll look to seal their dominance with a tournament win.
McDaniels the Man?
The Minutemen may outmatch the Tigers athletically, but the development of McDaniels might help negate that fact.
He’s been excellent in the early going, averaging 18.8 points per game and shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range.
While the Minutemen will likely key on McDaniels defensively, he’s managed to avoid the pressure so far during the tournament, as The Post and Courier’s Tommy Braswell explains.
Leading by example, McDaniels played a near-perfect game in the win over Davidson.
Of his nine field goal attempts, his only miss was a 3-pointer as he scored a career-high 22 points.
He’s had some help, with both Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison chipping in some offense over the course of the early part of the season, but McDaniels will get a chance to prove his emergence is for real against the Minutemen.
The Tigers will need him to be productive going forward if they want to exceed expectations, and this final will be a key place for him to start.
With the A-10 stacked with contenders like the VCU Rams and St. Louis Billikens, the Top 25 seemed like a distant goal for the Minutemen.
However, the team’s big win over New Mexico has vaulted them into the national conversation, as ESPN’s Jeff Goodman explains.
UMass with a big win against New Mexico. Building impressive non-conference resume. Could crack the Top 25 on Monday.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) November 22, 2013
If UMass wants to keep this momentum going and make that Top 25 bid a reality, the Minutemen will need to avoid a disappointment against Clemson.
This effort will start and end with senior guard Chaz Williams. He’s averaging 18.4 points per game and 6.2 per game in the early season, and he will be key to helping UMass tackle Clemson’s daunting defense.
Williams was excellent against New Mexico, and while his outside shooting was valuable, his playmaking ability really made the difference, as this video shows.
UMass has played well in transition so far, but Williams will be the driving force behind the team’s uptempo offense. As ESPN’s Seth Greenberg explains, the Minutemen have the advantage in athleticism and will need to push the pace to avoid getting bogged down in Clemson’s half-court defense.
Clemson UMass; tempo the key. Minutemen a well coached big long athletic bunch Tigers Defend run great motion. Brownell is a terrific coach— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) November 24, 2013
If Williams manages to keep the Minutemen moving, then they’re a sure bet to make the national polls and get one step closer to an NCAA tournament bid.
But if Clemson manages to pull the big upset, the rest of the ACC will have to take notice and start planning to stop McDaniels.
The Minutemen have the advantage on paper, but the Charleston Classic final will be compelling all the same.