“You know, the best coaching job I ever did, that wasn’t tonight. It was last season. You know, when we were 14-15 and we had a losing season. But (expletive deleted), those kids, they gave me their hearts! They gave me everything they had! They played up to the maximum of their ability! They gave it everything!”
Fans of sports flicks might recognize the above passage. It was uttered by the Pete Bell character (portrayed brilliantly by Nick Nolte) in the vastly underrated movie Blue Chips.
Now before I segue into a look at Brad Brownell and his 2013-14 Clemson Tigers, please note I’m not comparing Brownell to Bell or Clemson to the fictional Western University.
That movie was about greed and corruption in college athletics.
This column is about an overachieving team and a man who deserves serious consideration for coach of the year honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Yet I’m reminded of Bell’s impassioned speech as I watch the ongoing roundball campaign play out in Clemson. On paper, there is no way this team should be 17-10 overall and 8-7 in the league. Brownell’s squad was picked to finish 14th in the ACC for a reason, and the main reason was forward K.J. McDaniels didn’t have a supporting cast that was mature enough or talented enough to make a real difference for the Tigers.
But here they are, finishing the season with a three-game home swing and looking like a team that could exit the ACC Tournament with at least 20 wins.
Certainly the loss to Wake Forest on Tuesday was a gut punch. Any hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid now probably rest on running the table in Greensboro later this month.
But the mere fact that Clemson has been in the conversation at all is surprising.
If they beat Maryland today, the Tigers will chalk up their ninth regular season ACC victory for just the ninth time in school history. Currently No. 6 in the ACC standings, a couple of wins will give them a more maneuverable path when the ACC tourney begins on March 12.
This is a team that, as expected, has gone through periods of wild inconsistency. There have been times they could heave the ball at the ocean from a sandbar and still miss the target.
But 17 out of 27 times, they’ve had the most points on the scoreboard when the last horn blows.
McDaniels, for his part, has been better than advertised. He leads the team in scoring (16.8 PPG) and rebounding (6.9 RPG) and paces the conference with an average of 2.8 blocks per outing.
Guard Rod Hall has hit double figures 14 times this season, center Landry Nnoko is becoming a force on the inside, and everyone from Jaron Blossomgame to Damarcus Harrison to Jordan Roper are finding different ways to contribute.
Harrison has been especially effective of late and will be looking for his fourth consecutive double-digit effort this afternoon.
It isn’t always pretty — one hears the word “grind” used a lot in postgame interviews — but this is a bunch that can hang with the league’s best, and sometimes even beat them.
Brownell has had his hands full with club that has four freshmen, four sophomores and no seniors; as was the case on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, things can go off-script.
Even so, these guys always show up even when they might not show off.
And despite the fact that he took Clemson to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and guided the squad to 22 wins, this year might just be Brownell’s best coaching job yet — regardless of what the final record shows.
Pete Bell would be proud.