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Clemson Basketball - Fans Don’t Care About Being Above .500

Under Coach Brownell, Clemson has been consistent and respectable, but is that a worthwhile goal?

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Clemson Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Brad Brownell had a “State of the Program” press conference last week and made some interesting comments that really had me thinking about the goals for the program and how success is measured.

This article isn’t going to be a treatise about Coach Brownell and my thoughts on him, but rather a deep dive on what constitutes a successful program and specifically a successful basketball program at Clemson. So with that, let’s start with the following quote from Coach Brownell:

“I know there’s a level of frustration with us and our program of wanting more and more, but I think last year was an example of the kind of program we have. We’ve had one losing season since I’ve been the head coach at Clemson. You can go through the league and almost every other school has had that or more. Most of them have had more. My point to that is that’s what you saw with our kids fighting. We didn’t talk about it, having a winning season, but they fought to the end.”

Coach Brownell is pointing out how his teams always give good effort, don’t quit, and have a relatively high floor. It’s true and that’s certainly nice, but I don’t think avoiding the occasional horrible season is really valuable to fans. If the team is terrible, fans can turn their attention to the baseball team or away from sports. Unlike the Athletic Director, we don’t have to suffer through it, so going 17-16 instead of 14-18 (like the Gamecocks) isn’t especially relevant.

It’s great that Clemson didn’t quit on their coach and won several games late in the season, but much like a pro sports team that is already eliminated from the playoffs, those wins don’t count for anything.

College football is the only sport where the number of regular season wins is a major accomplishment that fans actually value. College basketball, like pro sports, is all about what you do in the postseason. The 2008 Georgia Bulldogs are the perfect example. In the 2008 SEC tournament, a mediocre 13-16 Georgia Bulldogs team won four straight tournament games to capture the conference title and finish 17-16. That is an incredible and memorable accomplishment. Meanwhile, Clemson’s identical 17-16 record from this season comes with little to celebrate.

Hopefully college football never comes this way, but in college basketball, the regular season is all about seeding in the conference and NCAA tournaments. Success is best measured there and Coach Brownell said as much:

“There’s another level that we’re aspiring to get to and I think we’re closer than some people think, but there’s also a level of consistency and competitive spirit in our program that should be a little bit more admired by some people. There are a lot of teams in our league that have two bad seasons in a row and then they make the tournament. Then they have an ok season, a losing season, make the tournament. Maybe they won a few more games and I get it. Everything is measured by the tournament and that’s fine. That’s our expectation to make the tournament. That’s what we’re trying to do and we’re getting to the point where we need to get in there and even do more. We need to get more Sweet 16s and Finals Fours. We can do that here.”

In Coach Brownell’s 12 seasons at Clemson, the Tigers are 6-11 in the ACC tournament, 3-3 in the NCAA tournament (counting the play-in win over UAB), and 4-3 in the NIT. That averages out to 1.1 postseason wins per season. If you want to count banners, it is two Round of 64 appearances and a Sweet Sixteen run in 12 seasons. Using postseason success as the measuring stick it is clear that the results fall short. Fortunately, both AD Graham Neff and Coach Brownell seem aligned that this is the case and this will be how success is measured.

Clemson lost four players from last year’s team (David Collins and Naz Bohannon to graduation and Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor to transfer). They’ve replaced them with incoming freshmen and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn. Llewellyn made 62 3-pointers, more than anyone on Clemson except Dawes, while shooting a solid 38.3%. They likely still need to land another guard, but with their best players (PJ Hall and Tyson Hunter) returning and the potential for a breakout season by Chase Hunter, maybe they can stack multiple postseason wins next season. Whether they do or not will be how their success is measured and what should determine the future of the program.