Jan. 15, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Clemson may not yet be considered a powerhouse, but perhaps no team in all of college basketball has faired as well in first half of the year as the Tigers.

Since the 2006-07season, Clemson is 38-1 in November and December, its only loss being a three-point setback to Mississippi last year.

Two years ago the Tigers were the nation's last unbeaten team after winning their first 17 games, and this year the 10th-ranked Tigers (16-0) are currently one of the remaining unbeatens, along with No. 1 Pittsburgh (16-0) and No. 2 Wake Forest (15-0), whom Clemson will host Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Littlejohn Coliseum.

So, the question remains, how does a program that hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1997 consistently dominate early in the season? And how, after starting out so hot, have they tended to cool off so much?

Senior guard/forward K.C. Rivers, who has been a part of all these hot-starting Clemson teams, including the 2005-06 squad that won its first 10 games, says it's all about attitude.

"(Coach Oliver Purnell) tells us to play every game like it's the Super Bowl ... because you have big teams losing to small schools, so that trend of just beating up on everybody is going out the door," Rivers said.

In 2006-07 Clemson parlayed its 17-0 start into an NIT bid and a loss in the NIT championship game to West Virginia. Even with its torrid start, the Tigers, who finished 25-11, were never ranked in the AP Top 25 and failed to get a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite a flawless resume so far this year, which includes road wins against Illinois and South Carolina and wins against ACC rivals Miami and N.C. State, it took the Tigers until the eighth AP Poll of the year in early January to crack the top 15. Their failure to produce the wins late in the season that they have early in the season could be a reason for voter skepticism.

"Maybe people are looking at us with three of four year snapshots, whereas most of these people look at the way they were last year and what you have coming back and kind of gauge your early polling on that," Purnell said. "That seems to be the way that most teams are gauged and it did appear that we were looked at a little differently for whatever reason."

In stark contrast to their .974 winning percentage in the season's first two months the last three seasons is the Tigers' success after the new year. From January on, Clemson has fluttered above .500 with a 27-20 overall record in that same time span.

One of the ways Clemson can wash away some skepticism and justify its ranking would be to down fellow unbeaten Wake Forest, fresh off a victory over then-consensus-No. 1 North Carolina. The Demon Deacons have outscored opponents by nearly 20 points a game and even ended BYU's then-nation's-longest home winning streak at 53 with a 94-87 win on Jan. 3.

"There is a reason [Wake Forest is] undefeated, because they're very good in most areas," Purnell said. "It's real hard to find a weakness on their club and that's the reason why they've done so well this far and they're going to have a great year."

It's rare that two undefeated teams would meet this late in the season and it's even rarer for a program like Clemson. In fact, this game is only the fifth matchup of teams ranked in the top 10 in the 41-year history of Littlejohn Coliseum. The four other matchups all came in the 1996-97 season.

Clemson, understandably, would like to draw even more parallels to that 1996-97 squad. That year, led by Greg Buckner, the Tigers went 9-7 in the ACC and went to the Sweet Sixteen. The only other time since then that Clemson had a winning record in the ACC was last year with an identical 9-7 mark. Coincidentally those are the last two seasons Clemson made the NCAA Tournament.

"We want to get back there" said Rivers of the NCAA Tournament. "We want to go two years in a row and go a little further and go a little deeper, but our concentration has to be one game at a time. We can't even think that far ahead. We can't even think ahead to next Wednesday."

Next Wednesday, the Tigers face Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina, but an unblemished Wake Forest team is ahead first. Back-to-back games against top 10 teams is a harsh reality of life in the ACC, but if Clemson wants to finish what it started, it will have to compete with the conference's best - after December