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Clemson Basketball Disappoints in Postseason Once Again

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NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson basketball concluded their regular season with a record of 16-8. They earned a 5-seed in the ACC tournament after a 10-6 record in ACC play and then received a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Clemson has only made the NCAA tournament 13 times in school history. Registering double-digit ACC wins and reaching the tournament is — on paper — an obviously successful year for Clemson’s basketball program. Yet it doesn’t quite feel that way, does it?

There are three reasons why we believe this season doesn’t “feel” like a success even though they met or even exceeded expectations in the pre-season goal of reaching the NCAA tournament.

1) COVID Funkiness: The bland atmospheres, schedule shuffling, pauses, and post-pause blowouts took some of the energy out of the season. This one is no one’s fault.

2) Style & lack of exciting wins: The Tigers boast a top-20 defense, but an offense outside the top 100. It makes for a gritty, slow style of play that isn’t always the most fun to watch. Most of their wins were well in hand before the final minutes. In ACC play, Clemson’s average margin of victory was 10 points (69-59) and their average margin of defeat was 19 points (57-76).

3) Post-season failure: In college football, every game matters. An 11-1 regular season with a loss in the first playoff game is a successful season for every program except maybe Alabama. College basketball is set-up very differently. 68 teams make the “playoff.” The worst team to make the tournament (per KenPom) was SWAC champion Southern Texas who ranked 218th. The worst at-large team to make the field was 50th ranked Drake. Arizona, Indiana, and Kentucky are the only teams inside KenPom’s top 50 to miss the tournament. Essentially, to make the tournament as an at-large team you just have to be inside the top 50 (Clemson sits at 43rd).

As such, it is much more about what you do in the postseason than what you do in the regular season. The latter is all about positioning yourself well for the postseason. So when Clemson earned a 5-seed in the ACC tournament only to promptly lose to a mediocre Miami team, their 10-6 ACC record felt somewhat wasted. When they earned a 7-seed only to lose to Rutgers, it felt wasted.

2021 was always going to be the “payoff” year. After two seasons rebuilding after the 2018 Sweet 16 core graduated, this was the year that Clemson should expect to make the tournament. Reaching it while sputtering across the finishing line going 1-3 to close the year doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth the wait.

Looking back

The consistent post-season failures are disheartening. Clemson is 10-13 all-time in NCAA tournament-play with an ugly 6-7 record against teams with weaker seeds. If you take out the 1980 48-team tournament in which the Tigers' wins came against 11-seed Utah State, 3-seed BYU, and 10-seed Lamar and look at their performance since the field has expanded to 64-68 teams, Clemson is just 7-12.

Clemson’s tournament history is not a Brad Brownell problem. It’s one that goes back to Cliff Ellis’s 1987 team losing to 13-seed Southwest Missouri State and Rick Barnes’s 1998 team losing to 11-seed Western Michigan. Sure, Grayson Marshall was out in 1987 and it was a killer, but you figure Clemson still should have had enough to beat a mid-major like SWMS. C_Craft was in the Omni to witness that game in person and the Tigers got embarrassed from the tip to the end.

Guard play wins in the tournament so it shouldn’t be a surprise that forward-centric Clemson teams seem to come up short. Nick Honor struggled against Rutgers to the point that he wasn’t even on the court for the team’s late possession to tie the game. Dawes looked good early but was quiet down the stretch. Clemson needs improved guard play to win when it counts.

Looking ahead

Clemson loses Aamir Simms and Clyde Trapp from this year's team and one would figure there will be the usual transfer or two. That leaves Al-Amir Dawes, Nick Honor, and Hunter Tyson as the best returning players.

Clemson has to develop their guards better or find them on the transfer market. The Sweet 16 team boasted Gabe DeVoe, Shelton Mitchell, and Marcquise Reed. Will John Newman take the next step in his development? What about Chase Hunter? Dawes and Honor were good, can they become the type of guards who carry a team in the tournament?

Perhaps PJ Hall and Olivier-Maxence Prosper make big strides and become big time players in 2022, but it seems that having guards who can create their own shots is what this program sorely needs and briefly had with Marquise Reed on the 2018 Sweet 16 team. That will be the question looking forward to 2022 and beyond.


Clemson NCAA Tournament History

1980

  • Earned program’s only Elite Eight berth
  • 6-seed in 48-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 11-seed Utah State, 3-seed BYU, 10-seed Lamar, 8-seed UCLA
  • 1-0 vs. better seeds; 2-1 vs. worse seeds

1987

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 4-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 13-seed Southwest Missouri State
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

1989

  • Eliminated in Round of 42
  • 9-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 8-seed St. Mary’s, 1-seed Arizona
  • 1-1 vs. better seeds

1990*

  • Eliminated in Sweet 16
  • 5-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 12-seed BYU, 4-seed LaSalle, 1-seed UConn
  • 1-1 vs. better seeds; 1-0 vs. worse seeds

1996

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 9-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 8-seed Georgia
  • 0-1 vs. teams seeded above Clemson

1997

  • Eliminated in Sweet 16
  • 4-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 13-seed Miami (OH), 5-seed Tulsa, 1-seed Minnesota
  • 0-1 vs. better seeds; 2-0 vs. worse seeds

1998

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 6-seed in 64-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 11-seed Western Michigan
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

2008

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 5-seed in 65-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 12-seed Villanova
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

2009

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 7-seed in 65-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 10-seed Michigan
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

2010

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 7-seed in 65-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 10-seed Missouri
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

2011

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 12-seed in 68-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 12-seed UAB, 5-seed West Virginia
  • 1-0 in play-in games, 0-1 vs. worse seeds

2018

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 5-seed in 68-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 12-seed New Mexico State, 4-seed Auburn, 1-seed Kansas
  • 1-1 vs. better seeds, 1-0 vs. worse seeds

2021

  • Eliminated in Round of 64
  • 7-seed in 68-team NCAA tournament
  • Path: 10-seed Rutgers
  • 0-1 vs. worse seeds

Clemson’s history features exactly one win over a power conference foe in the NCAA tournament, the blowout over Auburn in 2018. Clemson is a paltry 1-11 overall against teams from the Big East, Big 10, SEC, Pac 12, and Big 12. So, tournament futility is certainly not limited to Brad Brownell’s time. Clemson also has never won the ACC tournament despite being a charter member. This is objectively worse than Wake Forest’s football history!

Frustrated fans should understand that Brownell is not going anywhere coming off a top 6 ACC finish and a tourney bid unless he decides to leave on his own. Some may choose not to watch, but those fans who don’t should hope he and his staff can solve the issues at guard and with overall offensive efficiency that often separate the teams who can make postseason runs with those who don’t.

Even Clemson’s most talented teams with Horace Grant, Elden Campbell, and Dale Davis were undone by sub-standard guard play on the biggest stage. The 1997 team which was an eyelash from the Elite 8 had Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre. The 2018 team likely does even more if Donte Grantham doesn’t go down with the ACL injury, but it had a healthy Shelton Mitchell to go with Reed and DeVoe, who we all know could go off for 25-30 on any given night. The 2011 team got a really bad draw having to travel from Ohio to Florida and play a second game inside of 48 hours, which was a factor in prompting changes with the first four. That team had potential and a lot of that was because of Demontez Stitt and Andre Young at guard.

Brad Brownell mentioned how Rutgers had guards who are great one-on-one players. Miami beat the Tigers in Greensboro with that same type of makeup. You would think getting at least one guard who can really beat folks one-on-one would be high on the priority list. College basketball is very competitive, and it really makes a difference when you have guys who can make something happen — even if it’s just getting to the free throw line, where we almost never saw Clemson guards this year at all — when things aren’t perfect late in the shot clock.

Clemson very likely needs to stumble on a guy who blows up beyond what folks imagined in high school (like a Steph Curry or Ja Morant or even like Terrell McIntyre was). They are out there because you can see them on different rosters across this NCAA tournament playing for a lot of teams casual fans don’t know. It is tough to recruit to Clemson for hoops, even with the improved facilities. Talent evaluation and development are absolutely huge for any coach to be successful without blatantly breaking NCAA recruiting rules. As long as football is humming and basketball keeps its head above the water, the Clemson brass is likely more than happy to keep it like it is.