For the first time in three seasons, Clemson (20-12) is playing postseason basketball – hosting as a 3-seed in the NIT against 6-seed Georgia State on Tuesday (9 p.m., ESPNU).
The Panthers (25-8) were runners-up in the Sun Belt tournament, losing 82-81 in overtime to Louisiana. They are led by junior guard Ryan Harrow - a N.C. State and Kentucky transfer – who’s averaging 17.3 points a game this season.
After a next-to-last preseason projection, still playing after the ACC Tournament was the mark set in the offseason.
“That was our goal at the beginning of the year to be playing in March with a chance to advance,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said after a quarterfinal exit in the ACC Tournament. “We could taste the NCAA Tournament, getting closer with each win. Had a couple of really tough, heartbreaking losses with some controversy at the end.”
The Tigers won five of their last eight games to close the year, and all five losses in their final 10 games were by five or less points. The last two defeats? They held a lead in the game’s final 10 seconds, against Pittsburgh (83-78 in OT) to close the regular season and then No. 7 Duke (63-62) in Greensboro.
“You just hate for your season to end that way a little bit,” Brownell said. “The NCAA Tournament was what we were after.”
The close losses sting the most in retrospect. The NCAA Selection Committee was very much pro-ACC with six bids Sunday night, including extending an invitation to N.C. State (21-13, 9-9 ACC) for the First Four as a 12-seed. Clemson beat the Wolfpack by 17 on Feb. 18 in Littlejohn, but finished the season over 160 spots behind them in non-conference strength of schedule and over 20 spots in RPI.
The Tigers led the ACC in 3-point defense (.282) and blocks (5.9) and ranked second in the league in scoring defense (58), field goal percentage defense (.396) and free throw percentage (.737).
First-team All-ACC forward K.J. McDaniels led the conference in blocks (2.7) for a second consecutive season and ranked in the top-10 in scoring (17), rebounding (7) field goal percentage (.448), free throw percentage (.847) and offensive rebounds (2.4).
“I’m just really proud of these guys for how they fought all year,” Brownell said. “They’re a group of overachievers in some ways. They’re a group not many believed in, but we believed in ourselves and worked really hard.”
Clemson is 4-0 all-time against Georgia State. They last met in 2006, a 67-57 Tigers win.
This is the Tigers’ 15th NIT appearance. Clemson has won nine-straight home NIT games.
The victor plays the winner between 2-seed Illinois and 7-seed Boston University over the weekend. Should Illinois and Clemson win, Clemson would host again because the Illini are on the road for March due to renovations to their home court.
Three wins in the NIT and they are among the final four teams playing in Madison Square Garden. NYC-based St. John's is the one-seed in Clemson's regional as well.