I wrote an article called The Brownell Dilemma which went up March 10th, 2016 on this site (Editors note: this title was featured on ESPN in referencing the hot seat). The poll at the end saw 66% say Brad Brownell should remain the coach. That was before the 2016-17 season ended with a major flame out in the NIT against Oakland before having Jaron Blossomgame return for his senior season and the big three transfers (Elijah Thomas, Marcquise Reed, and Shelton Mitchell) all eligible and playing for the team.
I was among many who seethed a bit when Clemson sat on its hands while prospects like VCU’s Will Wade were out there ready to make the jump. Coach Brownell and Dan Radakovich ended up having the last laugh as the decision to bring Brownell back paid off in spades this season when the Tigers posted one of their best seasons in program history, and I would certainly say the second biggest overachieving season in my lifetime (the slab five season ranks first).
Coach Brownell’s end of the season press conference had a much different tone than the one of clear uncertainty that clouded the presser at last year’s end. Now discussions of another contract extension are taking place and things look stable for the foreseeable future at the top of the men’s program.
The skeptics are still out there. There are legitimate questions as to whether this level of success is sustainable. Former coach Cliff Ellis struggled mightily to follow up strong years, only making back to back NCAA appearances once in his tenure, but Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell were able to string three straight NCAA tournaments together before leaving for other jobs after the end of that third appearance. The ACC has always been a murderer’s row in basketball and Brownell wasn’t shy in pointing out just how tough finishing in the top 8 consistently is. Josh Pastner, Danny Manning, and Mike Brey have learned how quickly fortunes can turn if you can’t finish close games or lose a key player.
Even with the misfortune of Donte Grantham’s knee injury, Clemson kept grinding and found a way to put a terrific run together. Clemson’s losses since the championship game in Charleston to Temple? at UNC, Duke, at UVA, at NCST, at Syracuse, at VT, at FSU, UVA in the ACC tourney, and Kansas in the NCAA tourney. All of those teams made the NCAA tournament, 1 was the ACC champion, 1 made the sweet 16, 2 made the elite 8, and Kansas, of course, is in the final four. It took a very high level team to beat this Tiger team.
Clemson should be in excellent position to put another NCAA tournament team on the floor next season, but there are serious variables out there as well. The big three transfers are entering their senior season and could choose to test the draft waters. Opportunities to play in the NBA’s G-league or overseas are legitimate possibilities for them even if they were to go undrafted (likely). Fortunately for Clemson, Eli Thomas has already said he will return for his senior season.
I want to become a LittleJohn Legend ❗️ . Therefore , I Ain’t Going No Where ..... , We Have an Unsatisfied Team & Unfinished Business . Stay Tuned . #SeniorSzn #LetsGetToWork #TheFlex 1️⃣4️⃣ pic.twitter.com/8El21Nq0h3— Elijah Thomas (@edotcash) March 30, 2018
If either Mitchell or Reed choose to leave, it could be the difference between an NCAA berth or the NIT (or even worse). We saw Clemson’s offense sputter in two games without Mitchell already (VT and Duke).
The success of the transfers who have joined the program should help attract others seeking greener pastures. I expect Clemson to seriously entertain another graduate transfer center to fill the Mark Donnal role.
Clemson is beginning to recruit at a higher level out of high school too. Although Brownell ultimately missed on Zion Williamson, there are still some big time prospects coming up in this state (Christian Brown, Josiah James, among others) and he needs to win a battle or two to land one. Diamond in the rough/development stories like Gabe DeVoe and K.J. McDaniels are great, but it is hard to be consistent without some top 100 talent in the mix.
Aamir Simms is a great example of that type of talent (he rated as the #89 prospect in the nation by Rivals, #104 by Scout and #107 by 247). He has the look of a future star after a strong freshman campaign (better than K.J.’s, Donte’s and Jaron’s comparatively) and can be built around.
The investment Clemson has made in this program appears to be beginning to pay some dividends too. The Tiger football program continues (and should continue) to help make the Paw a nationally recognizable brand. The ACC is the best basketball league in the nation and just saw Chris Mack leave a top 2-3 Big East job for the Louisville job in the shadow of the FBI’s probe into the NCAA. Pittsburgh just paid millions to make a change after just two seasons. You can’t find any program in this league that is fine with not being competitive in basketball. Not having to hit the reboot button right now is a major plus for the University.
The buy-in and trust this year’s team showed towards Brownell and his staff was a major step forward and could lead to significant positive momentum. Putting two or three NCAA tournaments together can and has certainly been done at Clemson, but no coach has ever taken things beyond that point. If Brownell can, it would be a story similar to the Frank Beamer VT story in football which is so often mentioned as the case for patience with a coach.
For those interested, Coach Brownell’s end of season presser is embedded below. it’s worth a listen.