After a 1-1 performance in the ACC Tournament and a 0-1 hiccup in the NIT, The Clemson Tigers finished the basketball season at 23-11 (14-6). It is their most wins since the 2017-18 Sweet Sixteen team that went 25-10. From 2018-19 through last season, they only reached the 20-win mark once. While the goal was to make the tournament and they narrowly fell short of that, AD Graham Neff granted Coach Brownell another season to lead the basketball program due to that high win total — especially the school record 14 ACC wins (Note: they moved to the 20-game ACC schedule in 2019-20).
Still, there’s reason to believe this team wasn’t a whole lot better than recent iterations Clemson has put on the court. In fact, based on KenPom team rankings this year’s Clemson team wasn’t better than any of the last seven!
KenPom rankings can be an especially useful tool for evaluating teams across years because they consider strength of schedule and efficiency metrics. While they’re not especially useful for grading a resume regarding what a team has accomplished, they are a great predictive tool to help gauge how tough a team is to beat.
How did Clemson go 14-6 in the ACC and only rank 72nd in KenPom? Three reasons. First, they played a weak non-conference schedule and had two very ugly losses (U of SC and Loyola-Chicago) as well as a loss to one (Iowa) of just two quality opponents they played (the other being Penn St.). Second, the ACC was historically bad, ranking seventh in the NET as a conference. Lastly, not only was the ACC bad, but Clemson’s ACC schedule was particularly weak. They avoided getting any of the top four teams twice in the regular season (Miami, Duke, and Virginia with the other being themselves) while playing bottom-feeders Louisville, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Virginia Tech twice (NC State and Wake Forest were also played twice).
It was the perfect schedule for a shot at a ACC championship. Sometimes you get lucky in scheduling and a championship would have been valued all the same, even if it was heavily a product of schedule luck. Unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition and while 14-6 and 3rd in the ACC is good, it is likely more about context than program progress.
If we look back at the chart above, we see that Coach Purnell took over a very weak team from Coach Schyatt and by year four (the season ending in 2007) had them in the top 30. That team that ranked 29 in KenPom went to the NIT title game where they lost to West Virginia. He then had three straight NCAA tournament teams before Coach Brownell took over. the NCAA added more play-in games and the Tigers beat UAB in a “First Four” game in Brownell’s inaugural campaign, but like the three teams before them, still lost in the round of 64 (again to West Virginia).
After that it was six years of wandering in the desert as Coach Brownell changed the program’s identity from playing a fast, athletic, full court press style that sometimes lacked a shooter’s touch (especially at the FT line) to team to a plodding, fundamentally sound, half court man-to-man defense team. 2018-2019 was the breakthrough. Not only did they make the tournament, but they reached the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, since then there has been just one tournament appearance in five years — a Round of 64 loss to Rutgers — and it doesn’t look like a lot of progress is being made. Clemson only has one freshman coming in so the future of Coach Brownell’s tenure and the program’s future could come down to the transfer portal.
More broadly — and this is hard to fathom — thanks to all the football money they’ve re-invested in other programs the SEC has become a basketball power. Just look how Virginia Tech stole Coach Buzz Williams away from Virginia Tech or how Arkansas sniped Coach Mussellman from Nevada and gave him a big money extension. Now, Alabama, Tennessee (who just beat Duke), and perhaps even Arkansas are better than every team in the ACC. The same goes for Texas who is soon to join the SEC. Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Auburn are surely better than the ACC’s comparable second-tier of NC State, Pittsburgh, UNC, and Clemson. The SEC TV money is getting re-invested elsewhere and it showing.
As Clemson, Florida State, and UNC search for a way to fix or escape the ACC, this basketball season only added urgency to the cause. For more on this, check out the video below.