SAN DIEGO — Once again Clemson is the underdog, even though it is technically not the underdog.
Like all season, the experts once again are doubting the Tigers, a No. 5 seed, as they get ready to play New Mexico State in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament Friday in the Midwest Regional at Viejas Arena at San Diego State University in San Diego.
The Aggies, the 12th seed, are the trendy pick as this year’s No. 12 team to beat a No. 5 seed.
“I think overall, back then it was motivating, but from my understanding, they are busy covering NBA Basketball all year,” Elijah Thomas said from the Clemson locker room on Thursday. “One of them, Charles Barkley, went to Auburn so they have to pick somebody, so why not pick Clemson to get upset.
“At the end of the day, it does not matter. Those guys are not playing with us. They are not on our campus. They are just doing their job. We don’t pay it any mind. Friday when we step on that court, and we handle our business, it will be something we are used to and we will get ready for the next game.”
Clemson head coach Brad Brownell had a different view of why people think his team will not beat New Mexico State.
“I think New Mexico State is a really good team, that’s why,” he said. “And when you watch them play you understand that. They beat Miami, beat Illinois at Illinois, beat Davidson, played USC to the wire in Hawaii.”
Brownell says he has a ton of respect for the Aggies’ program because he used to be the head coach at a mid-major. Brownell led UNC-Wilmington and Wright State to the NCAA Tournament before coming to Clemson.
“That’s where I started and coached as a head coach for eight years and an assistant for eight years, and I know how hard it is to do that,” he said. “It’s not easy to be the favorite to win the league and then to go into the tournament, there is pressure there.
“I really think, you know, the top two, three seeds in the tournament, the top ten teams in the country, maybe there is some separation, but I don’t know that there is a lot of separation after that. To be honest with you, the 12s, the 5s, the 7s, the 10s, the 11s, I don’t think there is a lot of difference. I think everybody has good players. There are better coaches than ever. New Mexico State has an older group that’s used to winning. They defend you. They rebound. They do the things that you need to do to be good so I don’t think it’s a trendy pick of it being 12-5. I think it’s because New Mexico State has good players and coaches and they play well.”
Brownell may understand why the Aggies are the trendy pick, but his point guard says it does motivate the Tigers.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder because of everything we went through,” Shelton Mitchell said. “People were saying when Donte (Grantham) went out that we were not going to be here. Even before the season they picked us to be 13th in ACC play.
“So we don’t pay attention to that. Obviously, anyone can be beaten at any time. I think we just have to prepare the right way and we will be fine.”