Clemson’s season ended with a resounding thud as the program was drubbed by 20 points in the ACC Tournament Semifinal by Virginia, saw the bubble pop on selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament, and subsequently lost as a #1 seed at home in the first round of the NIT. In between the NCAA selection show and Wednesday’s NIT game, AD Graham Neff announced Brad Brownell would return as coach next season despite many largely believing it was an NCAA tournament or bust season for him. The Brownell era has grown more polarizing by the year for Clemson fans and the end of the 2022-2023 season certainly didn’t help that.
What went right: Hunter Tyson put together a first team All-ACC season in his final run as a Tiger. His stretch of play during the hot January the Tigers enjoyed had me thinking of what Horace Grant did back in 1987 on his way to ACC Player of the Year honors. Tyson was a true testament to how a four-five year player development progression should look. Unfortunately, his final game was marred with very poor shooting, but it shouldn’t take away from what was one of the best individual seasons in Clemson basketball history.
This team, when clicking, was one of the most potent offensive units we have seen at Clemson in a very long time. This was on full display when the Tigers blew NCSU out three times and when it hammered Florida State by 40 points, among several other games along the way to a school record 14 ACC wins (albeit against a 20 game league schedule). The team finished 3rd in the ACC, rarified air for Clemson basketball, and notched great wins against Duke, Pitt (on the road), and an incredible last second victory over Florida State in Tallahassee along with the aforementioned sweep of the Wolfpack.
Chase Hunter blossomed as the point guard, finishing with 138 assists and a 2/1 assist to turnover ratio. Those are numbers not seen in a while at Clemson at a position that has not been a great strength during the Brownell era. Hunter also put up his best season in terms of shooting percentages, scoring, and rebounding. He should be poised to be one of the top players in the ACC in his final season next year.
PJ Hall rebounded from injuries that kept him out of the offseason and early part of this season to make 3rd team All-ACC. He continued to show he is one of the best players in Clemson history and will test the waters of the NBA draft while retaining eligibility much like Aamir Simms and Jaron Blossomgame did. Both of those players returned to Clemson and produced by far their best seasons building off the feedback from that process. Clemson fans can only hope that will be the case with Hall, whose departure a year earlier than expected would be a serious blow much like the loss of KJ McDaniels was several years ago.
What went wrong: Despite 14 league wins and 4 “Quad 1 victories,” Clemson had four terrible losses that ultimately doomed its chances at a much desired (and needed) NCAA tournament berth. The first was a loss to what was a bad University of South Carolina team in a rebuild who barely finished in Quad 3 territory. It added insult to injury from the upset loss by the football team in November. Rivalry games can be tricky, but a team with Clemson’s experience losing to a team largely constructed of transfers and one good freshman that early in the season was a bitter pill to swallow.
Clemson’s blowout loss at the hands of what would be a 10-21 Loyola-Chicago squad was one of the worst performances in recent history. Many would argue the loss at Louisville was worse, but Louisville at least sports a roster with more top 100 talent than Clemson. Loyola-Chicago was a shell of the team that made a magical run in the NCAA tournament but you wouldn’t have known it that day.
Obviously the loss to Louisville, which was just the Cardinals’ fourth (and ultimately final) win of the season, created a scenario where the Tigers had to beat Virginia (either in Charlottesville or the rematch in the ACC), which they didn’t do. Lastly, the team took all the disappointment from the NCAA selection snub and collapsed against Morehead State at home, where only a very strong Miami team had beaten them (barely) all season long. I can only imagine the negative recruiting ammunition this season and its ending provides for a program that already struggles to lure top end talent (and top end transfers).
Going Forward: Coach Brownell, barring an unexpected change of course, will be back in what you would truly believe is an NCAA tournament or bust scenario. Provided Hall returns, Brownell should have the pieces to have a strong team with Chase Hunter and one of his best freshmen classes ever. Ian Schieffelin and Ben Middlebrooks both showed improvement as sophomores. They are targeting the transfer portal to add two, probably three veteran pieces. If those hit right, this easily could be an NCAA tournament team in 2023-24. Chauncey Gibson has entered the portal and you hope he is the only one from a Clemson fan perspective.
Coach Brownell made some very interesting points about scheduling and the ACC’s role in it. I’m not sure how much I believe the program is hamstrung in finding more high level games out of conference, because programs like Furman that have been on the upswing are right there instead of SC State or The Citadel, but a lot of programs like Clemson fear playing the dangerous mid-major for risk/reward. Clemson rarely, if ever, schedules College of Charleston who has historically put a strong mid-major product on the floor. Some of the better tournaments are not inviting Clemson to participate, but Clemson got a chance to play some of these during Rick Barnes’s time, namely the matchup with Kentucky to begin the 1996-97 season. The painful truth is that Clemson basketball in its current form does not move the needle and a fanbase that is more and more divided on the direction of the program doesn’t help matters.
Virginia Tech has found games in recent years with Villanova, Michigan State, Dayton, Oklahoma State, Memphis, and Xavier. Are they really that more favorable a program to get games like that vs. Clemson or are they just more willing to take those games on? That is a question I’m not sure has been answered.
Coach Brownell has pointed to the lack of a “bad” season for his program, the type of season we saw Louisville have and programs like Wake, BC, GT, and even FSU have experienced in recent years. His program has often finished above projections in the ACC, including this season (11th predicted to 3rd finish). However, what is to be said for consistently being chosen to finish in the bottom half of the league despite that? His program has now garnered three NCAA tournament bids (two as double-digit seeds) and advanced beyond the second round of the NIT once in four appearances over the past 13 years. Only BC, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech have had fewer NCAA tournament bids during that span of time. Here is the list:
- BC: 0 bids
- Wake Forest: 2 bids
- GT: 2 bids
- Clemson: 3 bids
- VT: 5 bids
- Miami: 6 bids
- Pitt: 6 bids
- NCSU: 6 bids
- FSU: 7 bids
- Louisville: 8 bids
- ND: 8 bids
- UVA: 9 bids
- Syracuse: 9 bids
- Duke: 11 bids
- UNC: 11 bids
Most of those programs are on at least their second coach during that span, and only VT lost a coach who was successful and took another job. The rest of the changes were from lack of performance, scandal, or retirement. Yet, Clemson has stuck with Brownell despite being tied for 12th out of 15 in NCAA bids. There are a lot of things that should matter in evaluating a coach, such as academics and compliance, but the name of the game in college basketball is March Madness. All relevance is tied to it, for better or for worse. By that standard, Clemson failed to reach relevance this season.
Fortunately, there is promise for next season with PJ Hall and Chase Hunter both presumably returning. Surely, next season is NCAA tournament or bust.