Should NCAA hopes fade, Clemson vs Georgia would be intriguing NIT match

If they meet, fans will see two overachieving teams and two excellent coaches square off for the price of one ticket.

Clemson's Landry Nnoko (35), K.J. McDaniels (32), Demarcus Harrison (21) and Maryland's Evan Smotrycz trap the ball against the glass as they battle for a rebound in the first overtime of their NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Mar. 2, 2014 in Clemson. S.C. Clemson won, 77-73 in double overtime. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

Photo by Mark Crammer

Clemson's Landry Nnoko (35), K.J. McDaniels (32), Demarcus Harrison (21) and Maryland's Evan Smotrycz trap the ball against the glass as they battle for a rebound in the first overtime of their NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Mar. 2, 2014 in Clemson. S.C. Clemson won, 77-73 in double overtime. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

By the end of the weekend some of the lower profile conferences will have crowned their basketball champions (and NCAA Tournament representatives) and next week all the leagues will join in the postseason frenzy leading up to Selection Sunday.

Earning a spot in the Field of 68 is the main goal of the 351 D-I schools, obviously, but the National Invitation Tournament is a decent consolation prize. It’s also the most likely destination for a pair of teams few people thought would be playing beyond next week.

Clemson (19-10, 10-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) has been the (pleasant) surprise team of the ACC and Georgia (17-12, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) holds that distinction in the 14-team SEC.

Tiger boss Brad Brownell went from being the coach of team picked to finish next to last in its conference to one of that conference’s leading coach of the year candidates, while Mark Fox has jumped from the hot seat to the seat reserved for coaches who deserve a contract extension.

And like Brownell, he’s most certainly coach of the year material.

But as good a job as both men have done and as much as their squads have achieved, Clemson and Georgia will likely be shut out of the NCAAs - short of winning their respective conference tournament titles, of course.

Once upon a time 20-wins served as a ticket to the dance, and the Tigers have a chance to hit that mark today when Pittsburgh comes to Littlejohn Coliseum.

If that happens, and they win three games in Greensboro, there is some hope that they can somehow sneak into the NCAA Tournament.

But all the stars would have to be aligned correctly and there could be no conference tourney surprises in one-bid leagues.

In reality the NIT is the most likely landing spot for the Tigers later in the month.

Regardless, Brownell realizes his team has done the university proud – winning 10 ACC games for just the fourth time in program history.

“It helps having a couple extra games,” Brownell said of the milestone. “I would pat us on the back, but when they played 14-16 (game league schedules) it was a little harder. Having said that, I’m really proud of our team for what they’ve accomplished. We’ve won two tough games this week (Maryland and Miami) and that says something about the character of our team.

“We’ve had a very good year so far, and hope to keep going and make it special.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone pegging Georgia for third place in the SEC but that’s where the Dawgs sit, one game clear of fourth. And if they win today at LSU and Kentucky loses to Florida, they would actually be tied with the Wildcats for second place.

It’s been a remarkable season for Fox and company, who were completely written off after starting 1-4 and going 6-6 leading up to the SEC schedule.

Still, Fox refuses to talk about anything beyond his team’s current assignment.

“We’ve improved in a lot of places,” Fox said. “We have a number of guys who are now comfortable making their offensive plays. We have a handful of guys who can finish plays for us.

“Defensively we’ve continued to grow and improve. But we’re a team that can only look as far as the next game.”

Like Clemson, Georgia would need a dramatic run in the SEC Tournament to have even a remote shot at driving on the “Road to Arlington.”

And just as there are those who predict the NCAA Tournament Field, there are “bracketologists” who use a crystal ball to select the NIT’s field of 32.

The NIT Bracket Project currently has Clemson as a No. 3 seed in one of the tourney’s four eight-team regions, while Georgia is a No. 6 seed.

Big Apple Buckets, on the other hand, has the Tigers seeded seventh in one region and the Bulldogs fifth in another.

Bottom line, barring an unlikely berth in the NCAAs, both Clemson and UGA will be playing in the opening round of the NIT March 18 or March 19.

And who knows? Maybe they’ll wind up playing each other.

If they do, fans will see two overachieving teams and two excellent coaches square off for the price of one ticket.

Follow Scott Adamson on Twitter @adamsonslAIM.

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