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The Brownell Dilemma

Wednesday night's implosion in the ACC tournament has many Tiger fans stewing, but what is the answer for Clemson basketball?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to explain just what went wrong in the ACC tournament for the Clemson Tigers.  In many ways, it was a microcosm of the entire season wrapped up in one game.  The team got off to a flat start, then put together a strong stretch of play, and then seemed to forget how to play on either end and lost.  It wasn't hard to find the social media and internet worlds calling for Brownell's head after such a disheartening loss.  In the grand scheme of things, it has been business as usual for Clemson Tiger basketball.  It has been the joke of the ACC for much of its existence with small cracks of sunshine sprinkled in.  The program has been underfunded and undersupported for most of its life.  How many major division one programs can say they had their arena CONDEMNED?  Clemson can say that.

Those who have been around a while are used to this, but much of the younger generation of Tiger fans got to grow up in the Oliver Purnell years where Clemson basketball was about as hot as it has ever been.  My generation of folks who schooled in the 90s got to enjoy the Rick Barnes era, which was perhaps the most impressive run by a Clemson basketball coach ever.  Those were fun times because the football school became a major headache for the Duke's and Carolina's of the world.  Those teams were NIT locks at the worst and put multiple NCAA tournament appearances together.  They showed it can be done, even with the disadvantages that Clemson faces in the basketball world.  It is largely the crowd who knows this who are grabbing the torches and marching towards Brownell's house, figuratively speaking.   Now the Tiger brass has some real soul searching to do in regards to the basketball program and its future.

THE CASE FOR BROWNELL: Despite the lack of NCAA tournament appearances and some serious issues with pre-ACC play from his teams, Brad Brownell has put together a pretty impressive record in conference play overall during his tenure.  His teams have clearly been better in the second half of seasons versus the first, which is always a good indicator of coaching and adjustments.  Brownell is widely lauded by his peers for putting tough teams on the floor who defend at a high level.  He has seen a lightly recruited guy in K.J. McDaniels blossom into an NBA talent (albeit on the fringe currently), and another in Jaron Blossomgame turn into a legitimate college star with NBA potential.  His teams have avoided discipline problems, APR problems, and there have been no recruiting violation problems of any kind. He has had to deal with the "lipstick on a pig" annex job on Littlejohn and the subsequent dislocation to Greenville as a result of the major, and about 20 years overdue, overhaul of the arena.  The Clemson administration felt strongly enough about his work to secure him to a lucrative contract extension with a heavy buyout that doesn't begin to go down until after next season.  He is the only Tiger coach to post two 10 league win seasons in a career (albeit in an expanded league with more games).  His teams have outperformed some more talented rosters in the league on a regular basis.  He inherited a mess of a class from Purnell which included highly regarded Milton Jennings, Noel Johnson, and Devin Booker, all of whom underachieved or never achieved in respect to their ratings, but he still managed to have just one losing season despite the dysfunction.  He has adjusted his recruiting approach to embrace more transfers (much like Larranaga at Miami) and has three talented guys waiting to become eligible next season.  Firing a coach after a 10 win league season with a large buyout will make the next hire more difficult.

THE CASE AGAINST BROWNELL: His best year by far was coaching a group he didn't recruit.  Unlike Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell, he has not been able to parlay having an NBA player on his roster into an NCAA tourney appearance.  His teams have consistently gotten off to poor starts and suffered very bad losses prior to ACC play, and in two cases it cost the team a chance to make the NCAA tournament.  He has lost to the horrid Darrin Horn coached Gamecock teams and has lost two straight to Frank Martin's program recently, posting a 2-4 record overall against the in-state rival.  Brownell has had a string of recruiting failures who have transferred out of the program or minimally produced during their careers.  Student interest in the team has lagged behind what it was during the Barnes and Purnell eras.  He has been unable to secure the top player from South Carolina at any point during his career, the closest being Austin Ajukwa (ranked #2 in SC behind Thornwell).  Ajukwa, of course, was one of the many players who have transferred out of the program.  In six years, Brownell has posted one NCAA tourney appearance and one NIT final four.  That is just one postseason appearance more than Larry Shyatt produced.  The ACC has more allure now than in the last ten years as evidenced by Virginia Tech being able to lure Buzz Williams from Marquette, so there could be more interest in the job than many people think.

I'm personally very torn on this issue.  I've felt he should be gone and then I've felt he should stay.  Clearly his biggest problem has been recruiting the right fits for his program.  The question in basketball is often how dirty are you willing to get your hands?  You don't want to end up like Georgia with Jim Herrick.  Clemson is a tough job and the facility situation has not made things easier.  Brownell has been unlucky with losing some assistants to head coaching jobs before he likely expected to.  The buyout is problematic in the message it would send potential candidates should they pull the trigger on him this year (which I don't expect).  Brownell really maximized his roster in 2010-2011 and again in 2013-14, and I am intrigued by the prospect of the talent next year's roster should have available.  Should Blossomgame return, next year's team should easily be the best roster he has had since that first season.  However, if that team does win 22-25 games and makes the NCAA field, will Clemson then lock Brownell up with another extension?  What can he do recruiting to the new arena?  Can he take advantage of the increased visibility of Clemson gained by the success of the football program?  Can he re-energize the fan base after two straight years of lackluster finishes?  The bar has certainly been raised by Larranaga's program at Miami and what Buzz Williams has begun to do at Virginia Tech.  Now Brian Gregory has gotten the better of him two times in a row and GT is finishing the season on the uptick (albeit with a veteran roster which will overturn next year).  I'm putting this to an STS vote, but if nothing else, Coach Brownell is likely to see some frosty crowds during the IPTAY spring tour.  He has some serious PR work to do if he is back.