It’s hard for a part of the Clemson fan base to admit, but this basketball season has been a rousing success. No matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament.
This is a basketball team that was picked to finish towards the bottom of the ACC, yet here we are, with the Tigers a having a secured a seven-seed in the Big Dance. And some folks still aren’t happy.
This is now the second time in the past four seasons that Brownell has guided Clemson to a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Not bad for a coach still trying to build a program.
Sure, you can insert whatever joke you like about how long it’s taking to build that program, but let’s be frank, Brownell has only recently had anything in his arsenal to work with. Up until the past few years, there was so little to work with in fact, Brownell had to rely more on bringing in transfers than recruiting high school talent.
Now that Clemson has invested some money into the program, the Tigers are finding it a little easier to attract players out of high school. Al-Amir Dawes, Chase Hunter, Olivier-Maxence Posper, and PJ Hall have all chose to to come to Clemson in the past two seasons, helping give the embattled head coach his best two recruiting classes to date. Players that might not have made the same choice five years ago.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Brownell is intent on trying to build a program the right way. Something that isn’t all that easy in the sport today.
Now Brownell has a chance to really silence some of the doubters. Despite the early exit from the ACC Tournament, Clemson was 7-3 down the stretch, and finished 10-6 in league play. Only seven times in school history have the Tigers eclipsed the double-digit mark in wins in ACC play.
The Tigers also have eight wins over teams in the field, tying for most in the school’s history, and listening to senior guard Clyde Trapp on Sunday night after the field was announced, this Clemson team is headed into March Madness with the right mindset.
“Now the biggest thing about this tournament is we don’t want to just go to the tournament, I mean we want to win the tournament,” Trapp said. “I think the guys understand that, and everybody’s had a great sense of edge and approach in practice these last two days. Like I said, I think we’re just ready to get on the road.”
The Tigers are set to face 10-seed Rutgers on Friday night, and head into that game as the only higher seed in the field to be an underdog in the first round (1 point).
Both teams like to rely on defense to make their opponents uncomfortable, so it’s unlikely that this will be a high scoring affair. Clemson ranks No. 12 nationally in scoring defense (62.0), while Rutgers ranks No. 109 (68.2), and the magic number in this one appears to be 65, or 70 depending on your point of view.
Teams that score more than 70 against Rutgers are 8-4, but the Knights are 8-1 when holding opponents less than 65. Clemson is 2-4 when allowing 70 or more and 11-0 when allowing less than 65.
“Both teams will quickly be familiar with a lot of what the other team does.,” Brownell said Sunday night. “They’ll know us pretty well. They have plenty of time to get to know Clemson, and we’ve got plenty of time to try to get to know Rutgers. It’ll be about players making plays, guys making shots, being able to control their emotions, being in big games, and handling all that’s involved with that.”
In the end, though, Brownell said that he is happy there is such a rewarding pay-off for his team after a season played in such unusual circumstances. Something that he doesn’t want his players losing sight of.
“You just want it to be a good experience for the kids,” Brownell said. “Man, these guys pour their hearts out. And then the amount of work and hours. These are those life memories that I talked about that these kids are creating, and you just want it to be an experience that they enjoy.”