With precious little opportunity to work out the kinks with preseason exhibitions or games against lesser nonconference opponents, Clemson and Mississippi State will plunge into the season Wednesday night with a head-to-head matchup in the opening round of the Space Coast Challenge.
The four-team event is being held at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne, Fla. The tournament field also includes Purdue of the Big Ten and Liberty, the two-time defending Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season champion.
Clemson, which was tabbed for a 10th-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll, is coming off a 16-15 season in which the Tigers were the only team to defeat three teams ranked in the top six nationally.
Mississippi State went 20-11 last season, its third consecutive 20-win season.
"It's going to be interesting to see how teams play early in the season," said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who is entering his 11th season with the Tigers. "We've all had different setbacks and we haven't had exhibitions, we haven't had scrimmages, so the best you've been able to do is play against yourselves.
"That's good for a while, then after a while it's more challenging to keep your guys going. But I know everybody's going to be excited about playing, Mississippi State and everybody in the tournament. I know our guys are."
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland is well aware that his team will have to be ready from the season's outset.
"We start out of the gate with very difficult games on a neutral court against Clemson, then either Purdue or Liberty," said Howland, who is entering his sixth season with the Bulldogs. "All three of those teams are very good, and all three are extremely well-coached."
Mississippi State finished with a flourish last season, winning 11 of its final 15 Southeastern Conference games, but must recover from the loss of a pair of NBA Draft picks in Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard II.
Howland will count on Iverson Molinar, D.J. Stewart Jr. and Tolu Smith to step up their production.
"You see days that Iverson, D.J. and Tolu, all three of those guys are really dominant on the offensive end," Howland said. "Those three guys in particular are going to be really good for us in multiple ways."
Clemson's Brownell returns four starters, led by senior forward Aamir Simms and senior guard Clyde Trapp. Simms, who's 6-8, 245 pounds, is a preseason All-ACC first-team selection who led the Tigers in scoring (13.0) and rebounding (7.2) as well as blocks and assists.
The Tigers were at their best in January last season, knocking off N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke in successive games. The victory against the Tar Heels was the Tigers' first-ever at North Carolina, snapping a 59-game road losing streak in the series.
"I like our team," Brownell said. "I think we have good depth. I think we can play 10 or 11 guys in most games and feel like there's not going to be a lot of drop-off, so I'm excited by that.
"As much as anything, I think we're all just grateful to have the opportunity to play. It has been a long road and the kids have been through a lot. But I think having basketball has been a godsend for them."
--Field Level Media