What if this Clemson basketball team could actually accomplish something?
That’s the question we may be asking over and over again as this college basketball season unfolds. It needs constant updating and double-checking to make sure all information is accurate, but the state of Clemson’s postseason aspirations is an actual conversation topic in mid-January.
A 3-1 conference record is nice, but it’s not nice enough. Winning games like last night’s 56-49 victory over Virginia Tech does something, but it doesn’t do enough. The start is significant, but it’s not significant enough.
It needs to be said that Clemson’s three conference wins are hardly impressive to this point. The only RPI top 50 team the Tigers have beaten is Duke. Boston College and Virginia Tech are both outside the top 100.
Plus, the nonconference schedule was one of the worst in the country. South Carolina (108) is the highest-ranked RPI team on Clemson’s list of victories outside of the ACC. The Tigers are expected to finish with a schedule ranked around 80th in the country, but right now, it ranks 200th.
Don’t just look at the way the Tigers stack up against others—not yet. Instead, let’s spend some time comparing Clemson to itself.
The wins against the Eagles and Hokies both came on the road. In Brad Brownell’s first three seasons, his teams combined to win only five such contests—only 20 percent of their ACC road contests.
Late in these games, Clemson has begun to execute where past versions failed to do so. A 49-49 game in Blacksburg swung definitively in the Tigers’ favor when Adonis Filer converted a three-point play with under two minutes left. Similarly, enough plays were made in the waning moments that Clemson survived a rash of ill-advised decisions to eek out a win in Chestnut Hill.
This team has a budding star in K.J. McDaniels. The junior is the type of athlete that can make an impact on both ends of the floor. Coach K doesn’t rave about many players, but he had nothing but praise for McDaniels, calling him the best athlete in the ACC.
This team defends as well as any in the nation. The players have fully bought into what Brownell is selling and are routinely holding the opposition to lowly superlatives. The low-possession style employed by the Tigers serves to mask deficiencies on offense.
There’s no denying that the rest of the league is beginning to notice Clemson, probably because the media picked the Tigers to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the preseason standings. Just because folks now notice Clemson is still in the league doesn’t mean there’s anything of major consequence to see.
But what it does mean is that the Tigers are now right in the thick of the discussion in the ACC. We now have to monitor their progress toward a postseason berth. We might need to start mentioning Brownell among Coach of the Year candidates.
Even with a brutal stretch of games looming next week and beyond, a winning finish in the league seems reasonable at this point. A key injury or two—or an unlucky result—could change that, but the idea that Clemson’s season could matter doesn’t seem like a pipe dream anymore.
But don’t say it too loudly.