AS THE calendar flips this weekend from the proving ground months of men’s college basketball to the madness of March, a majority of the 66-team NCAA tournament field has been settled.
Then there are the Clemsons of the basketball world that sit squarely on the proverbial tournament bubble. The Tigers’ postseason fate will be determined over their final three regular-season games and at least one outing in the ACC tournament.
Even with the loss at Wake Forest on Tuesday night, Clemson remains in the tournament picture with a 17-10 overall record and 8-7 mark in the ACC.
That Clemson is in the discussion for postseason play is remarkable. The Tigers were picked by the media in the preseason to finish 14th in the 16-team ACC. They returned three players – guard Rod Hall, guard Jordan Roper and forward K.J. McDaniels – who saw considerable playing time during last season’s 13-18 debacle.
The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the bible of preseason scouting magazines, had this to say about Clemson:
“It’s probably too much to ask for the Tigers to turn things completely around and get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. A more reasonable goal would be to return to (Brad) Brownell’s trademark of getting better as the season goes on and begin building some positive momentum by increasing their win total instead of having it go down again.”
Even Clemson players, apparently, had doubts about positioning themselves for an NCAA tournament bid, according to Brownell.
“I don’t know that our guys, I’m sure they’d tell you they truly believed at the beginning of the year that we were going to do this or that,” Brownell said earlier this week. “But when you’re coming off the year that we did and you don’t have returning players ... I don’t know that was something we all believed we were really going to do or set out to do.”
Yet with one week to go in the regular season, Clemson has positioned itself to sneak into the tournament. The turnaround began with an offseason, four-game trip to Italy that served as a bonding tool for a team that clearly was fractured a season ago when it lost 10 of its final 11 games.
This team also branded itself early as one that would force its will on opponents with an air-tight, stingy defense, one that ranked second nationally prior to Tuesday’s game in allowing 56 points per game.
As the offensive production of players such as Hall and Demarcus Harrison has increased of late, much of the pressure to carry the scoring load has been diminished for budding star McDaniels.
The result is a more balanced Clemson team that has an excellent chance of finishing fifth in the ACC, a league that increased its strength this season with the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
In the preseason, when most observers believed the addition of such traditional powerhouses would make life more difficult for the Clemsons of ACC basketball, Brownell put a positive spin on the expansion. He said the likelihood would be that the ACC would get more teams in the NCAA tournament, thus increasing Clemson’s chances of joining the big ball if it finished in the top half of the league.
“They’ve elevated people’s view of the league a little bit at times, certainly Syracuse being No. 1 has helped,” Brownell said. “When you play those guys – we play Pitt twice and Syracuse, we had a chance – it gives you a chance to get significant wins to build your resume.”
Unfortunately for Clemson, the Tigers were blown out by 33 points at Pittsburgh in their poorest performance of the season, fell at Syracuse by 13 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated, and dropped a gut-wrenching, two-overtime decision at Notre Dame.
A win in any of those games probably would have punched Clemson’s ticket to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers also missed a golden opportunity to win over the NCAA selection committee when it fell recently at home to ACC leader and 12th-ranked Virginia.
Still, Clemson has a nice resume to present to the committee, with the home win against sixth-ranked Duke at the top of the page. Four league road wins also should boost the Tigers’ cause.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, the NCAA RPI had Clemson ranked 67th nationally, with the 100th toughest schedule. Hurting Clemson’s chances is that seven other ACC teams are ranked ahead of the Tigers in the RPI. Kenpom.com, another computer analysis, is more friendly to Clemson by ranking the Tigers 45th, with a strength of schedule at No. 83. Kenpom.com has six other ACC teams ahead of the Tigers.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to do some really good things this year, some special things,” Brownell said. “But we’ve got to finish.”
Finishing for Clemson probably means winning its remaining three games – all at home – against Maryland, Miami and Pittsburgh. If the Tigers win two of the final three games, they probably will need at least one win in the ACC tournament.
Just being in the discussion means it has been a successful season for Clemson.