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Pitt focuses on stopping Clemson standout McDaniels in ACC game

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 10:18 p.m.
Clemson's K.J. McDaniels grabs a rebound during the second half against Wake Forest on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014.

Jamie Dixon didn't realize how good Clemson's K.J. McDaniels is until the Pitt coach started scouting the Tigers on Saturday night.

It took only minutes to notice the athleticism of McDaniels, a 6-foot-6 junior swingman who has made four appearances on ESPN's Top Plays with highlight-reel dunks and blocked shots.

That's nothing new for opposing coaches, even though McDaniels leads the Tigers in scoring (16.7), rebounding (7.2) and ranks first in the ACC with 48 blocked shots, an average of 2.8 per game.

McDaniels has been a pivotal player for Clemson (13-4, 4-1 ACC), which plays No. 20 Pitt (16-2, 4-1) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Petersen Events Center.

“He's a special player,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “He's one of the better players in the country most people don't know a lot about because he's really kind of come into his own this year.”

After averaging 10.9 points and five rebounds last season, McDaniels is coming off his fourth double-double of the season: a 15-point, 12-rebound, four-block effort against Wake Forest. McDaniels has three 20-point, 10-rebound games this season, but his defense sets him apart: He has blocked at least one shot in nine consecutive games.

“He's going after 'em,” Dixon said. “It does speak to his aggressiveness, as well as his athleticism. He's doing a lot of good things and is a really good player who's getting better over his career.”

The improved play of McDaniels is a major reason the Tigers are off to their best start in ACC play since 1996-97 and are one win shy of matching their conference victory total from last season.

“I think he has a huge ceiling,” Brownell said. “He's athletic as anybody in the league. He can run and jump and block shots around the rim. ... It's extremely unique that your small forward is a guy who's leading the league in blocked shots, or right around it every year.

“He's just a guy who's been a joy to coach because of how hard he's worked. To see him develop, it's a nice story.”

Pitt marks the first of a grueling three-week schedule for Clemson, which plays five of its next six games on the road. The Tigers play at North Carolina on Sunday, at Florida State Feb. 1, at home against Georgia Tech on Feb. 4, at Syracuse on Feb. 9 and at Notre Dame on Feb. 11.

Pitt is 11-0 at home this season and riding a 13-game winning streak at the Pete, which Brownell called “one of the best home courts in all of college basketball.”

“It's the grind of the season,” Brownell said. “It's right in the middle. The novelty of ACC play kind of wears off a little bit, and you get back to the grind of what you do every day. There's a lot to it. We're going to play some great teams. We have some challenging venues to play in, but I'm proud of where our guys have started.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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