Like all coaches, the Tigers’ Brad Brownell would love for his team to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. However, he’s gratified by the growth his players have made to exceed expectations and that they are continuing to advance in the NIT.
“I’m very happy because I know how hard we all worked at it,” Brownell said.
Clemson reached the NIT semis, which will be played in New York, after rallying late against Belmont for a 73-68 win. Fans rushed the court in celebration Tuesday night, which seemed a little much for some observers.
Then again, maybe it’s an appropriate “Thank You” from supporters of a team picked to finish 14th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference before the season, but now among just three ACC teams still playing basketball.
Brownell believed Clemson (23-12) was deserving of an NCAA bid with its 10 Atlantic Coast Conference wins for just the fourth time in program history and improvement from last year’s 13-18 record. When his hopes fell short on Selection Sunday, Brownell and the players refocused to what they could accomplish.
“There’s nothing you can do about that so you look at the next task and the next task was to play well in this tournament,” he said. “And our guys have responded very well. “
Brownell saw the first seeds of that last August when Clemson played a four-game series in Italy. The Tigers had lost two of their three leading scorers from a year earlier in seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings and faced an enormous amount of questions about who’d pick up the slack.
Brownell said K.J. McDaniels and fellow junior Rod Hall, a former Laney star, discovered they had to take control of the team and not look to others – Clemson played this year without seniors in its regular rotation.
“It was the first time for us to recognize that, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t around. We’ve got to do some other things,’” Brownell said. “K.J. and Rod, you guys are the leaders and we need you to play like it.”
The two have done that. McDaniels, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, is the team’s top scorer (17.2 ppg), rebounder (7.1) and shot-blocker (97 this season). Hall was instrumental in Clemson’s second consecutive NIT comeback: he had a game-winning bucket Sunday to beat Illinois 50-49, then scored five points in the Tigers’ 12-2 surge during the final four minutes to beat Belmont.
Clemson had its share of hurdles to overcome this year. Brownell got a reprieve last spring from first-year athletic director Dan Radakovich with the understanding things had to improve.
But the Tigers were considered one of the ACC’s worst last October, finishing ahead of only last-place Virginia Tech in the preseason poll. Clemson lost sophomore guard Devin Coleman to transfer before ACC play began, giving the Tigers one fewer offensive option on a team that struggled all season to score points. And there were sizeable blowouts at Pitt, North Carolina and Syracuse that looked like might start a slide to the end like in 2012-13 when they lost 10 of their last 11.
Clemson, though, built its success on defense and McDaniels’ emergence as a top-flight player and likely late first-round NBA draft pick should the junior choose to leave. Fans Tuesday night put in their two cents, shouting “One More Year” at McDaniels before and after the game.
McDaniels said Clemson’s mission’s not over.
“It’s a great feeling,” McDaniels said. “I’m proud of my teammates, proud of the coaches, proud of the fans, and we’re going to go up there and try to get the title.”
In a letter to fans posted Wednesday, Radakovich said Brownell’s future was secure and that “Brad will use this NIT run to continue to improve our basketball program.”
Sophomore Damarcus Harrison, who had 14 of his 16 points against Belmont in the second half, said Clemson players did define themselves by others’ thoughts of what they were.
“We set a standard for us,” he said. “We’ve grinded, we play our hardest every time we step on the court, and we set a new standard. This has taken us this far.”