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Tigers look for first Elite Eight appearance since 1980 against Arizona

Toby Corriston
Clemson guard Chase Hunter shoots a reverse layup during the game against Baylor in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 24, 2024.

The Clemson men’s basketball team stands on the brink of history as it gears up for a Sweet 16 matchup. The team’s sights are set on a coveted Elite Eight berth, a milestone achieved by only one other team in program history.

However, standing in their way is the No. 2-seeded Arizona Wildcats, led by former UNC standout Caleb Love.

Entering as underdogs in its first two matchups — despite being a No. 6 seed against No. 11-seeded New Mexico — Clemson faced plenty of skepticism. The Tigers have defied expectations, controlling both games while trailing for just 14 seconds of the entire tournament.

“You go into that having a quiet confidence and chip on your shoulder knowing we can come in here and make some noise has been our attitude,” senior center PJ Hall said on Wednesday. “Keeping that confidence is huge.”

The matchup against Arizona fairs surprisingly well for the Tigers. The Wildcats’ inside-out offensive strategy mirrors Clemson’s style, playing into some of the strengths of the Tigers’ on both sides of the ball.

Anchored by the presence of 7-foot center Oumar Ballo, Arizona likes to dominate the paint while capitalizing on the speed and skill of players like Love and Kylan Boswell.

Shutting down transition-based offenses has been a strength of the Tigers recently, as seen against New Mexico and Baylor, two fast-paced teams.

For Clemson, the Sweet 16 holds echoes of past heartbreaks, particularly the 2018 loss against the No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. Since then, the Tigers made the NCAA Tournament in 2021 but narrowly missed it in 2019 and 2023. However, they seek redemption and aim to reach their first Elite Eight since 1980.

Head coach Brad Brownell, who has been a part of several heartbreaking postseason runs, is looking forward to taking another stab at reaching the next round.

“Obviously, really happy to be here,” Brownell said on Wednesday. “Proud of my team and the way that we played last week. I thought we had some terrific performances. Certainly, we’ll need one of those this next game against Arizona.”

Clemson faces a disadvantage in terms of travel for this game. After playing Sunday night in Memphis, Tennessee, Clemson returned home around 3 a.m. on Monday, then flew to Los Angeles later that afternoon, spending just 12 hours back in Clemson before traveling again.

“Yesterday was a little challenging,” Brownell said. “We practiced, but it wasn’t easy. Just trying to get our legs back, just get used to the time change and all of that. I’m optimistic we’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”

In contrast, Arizona had a much smoother travel schedule. The team returned home around 6 p.m. on Saturday and only had to travel roughly a fifth of the distance compared to the Tigers, with just a one-hour time zone change.

Arizona also has a near-home advantage; although technically a neutral site in Los Angeles, the shorter trip for Wildcat fans from the West Coast will likely tilt the crowd support in their favor.

Despite the numerous challenges facing the Tigers, ultimately, it boils down to the performance on the court and not external factors.

“Make sure they’re not getting the easy looks, making sure we’re closing out hard on them, not letting them get in the lane,” Chase Hunter said of the key to Thursday’s game. “The thing is, they’ve got to guard us too. Making things hard for them offensively as well. Like I said, just making things hard for them, not letting them get some easy open looks early.”

History is within reach, and the Tigers are poised to leave it all on the court in pursuit of their Elite Eight aspirations. Tipoff is set for 7:09 pm ET at Arena Thursday night.

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Toby Corriston, Asst. Photo Editor
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