With Selection Sunday for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament exactly two months from today, Clemson is again working on putting together a resume that’s worthy of real consideration for an at-large berth.
For the Tigers and other tournament hopefuls in the ACC, that’s proving to be a bigger challenge than usual in their conference.
The ACC has long been one of the sport’s premier leagues given its collection of talent and depth. The conference has won five national titles (with four different teams) since 2010 and has sent at least seven teams to each of the last five NCAA Tournaments. The ACC has never had fewer than three bids since the tournament expanded to 64 teams – and eventually 68 – in 1985.
To this point, though, it’s been a down year for the ACC, which is making for fewer opportunities for its teams to notch the kind of quality wins against each other that are going to move the needle in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee, which uses the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, to assess teams’ respective bodies of work when determining at-large bids and seeding come March.
Take Clemson’s latest game for example.
The Tigers (10-6, 2-3 ACC) missed out on what would’ve been their sixth win in seven games in their most lopsided loss of the season at Notre Dame on Wednesday. But even if Clemson had won it, it wouldn’t have been that elusive Quadrant 1 win that’s missing from the Tigers’ resume since Notre Dame’s NET ranking sat at No. 87 before the game. Per the NCAA’s classification of NET wins, only victories over top-75 teams on the road qualify as Quad 1 wins, which can also be accrued by beating top-30 teams at home.
Home wins against teams ranked 31-75 and road wins against teams ranked 76-135 classify as Quad 2 victories. Wins against teams ranked any lower than that fall in quadrants 3 and 4. The higher the quadrant victory, the more weight it carries with the NCAA selection committee.
But the ACC, which is a combined 12-35 in Quad 1 games so far this season, doesn’t have nearly the number of teams it usually does closer to the top of the NET rankings. There are still the usual suspects – Duke is the league’s highest-ranked team in the NET at No. 15 while North Carolina is next at 35th – but Clemson was one of just six ACC teams in the top 75 heading into Wednesday’s games.
For the sake of comparison, the conference had 10 teams finish last season in the top 75 of the NET.
“Not really worrying about that, to be honest with you,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We can’t control what other teams’ NET and all of those things are.”
That’s not to say Wednesday’s outcome was insignificant for Clemson. As the quadrants show, teams are rewarded more for winning on the road, a big reason why the Tigers were still No. 57 in the NET despite having five losses heading into their matchup with Notre Dame. Nearly half of Clemson’s wins have come away from Littlejohn Coliseum, including both of their league wins (Virginia and North Carolina State).
The Fighting Irish also provided Clemson with a shot at a Quad 2 win, which would’ve helped a resume that, according to one bracketologist, is bubbly. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Tigers among the “First Four Out” of the tournament field in his latest bracket projections released before Wednesday’s game was played.
Those projections had just five ACC teams making the tournament. Among them? Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, whom Lundari had among the “Last Four In” before they also lost to Duke and Virginia, respectively, on Wednesday.
But Clemson has only played two Quad 1 games (both losses) and, as of now, has just two of those marquee opportunities remaining on its schedule before the ACC Tournament (at Duke on Jan. 25 and at Florida State on Feb. 15). Another one is in limbo after the Tigers’ league home opener against Duke on Dec. 29 was postponed because of coronavirus-related issues within the Blue Devils’ program. Brownell said recently he hasn’t heard from the ACC as to whether or not that game will be made up.
Teams’ NET rankings can fluctuate throughout the course of the season, so what are currently Quad 2 games on the slate could become chances at Quad 1 wins and vice versa.
For example, Clemson’s loss to Notre Dame turned into a Quad 1 setback after the win jumped the Fighting Irish 18 spots in the NET, giving the ACC a seventh team in the top 75 for now. The Tigers’ home game against North Carolina scheduled for Feb. 8 could turn into a Quad 1 opportunity if the Tar Heels move into the top 30 by then. And Clemson’s win at Virginia last month could jump from Quad 2 to Quad 1 if the Cavaliers, currently ranked 82nd in the NET, are able to crack the top 75 in the future.
But the odds of all of that happening are small since making sizable moves in the rankings is difficult to do with more than two months of the season already in the books, Brownell said, though Notre Dame’s leap shows it’s not impossible. Clemson also dropped nine spots to No. 66 in the NET following Wednesday’s loss.
“The way the NET works and the way the conference works, you’re almost slotted by how you play in November and early December, and then it’s really hard to change that,” Brownell said. “Your league is kind of stuck even though teams get better. We’re certainly better now than we were six weeks ago and nine weeks ago, and other teams in our league who are growing are doing the same. That’s one of the challenging things.”
Clemson’s next game will be at home Saturday against Boston College, a Quad 4 game that isn’t going to help the Tigers much if they win it but could be catastrophic if they lose considering the Eagles are approaching the 200s in the NET. The Tigers have avoided Quad 4 losses to this point and need to keep it that way.
A Quad 1 win or two would do wonders for Clemson’s resume. But with those kinds of opportunities limited, Clemson could also use all the Quad 2 wins it can muster, another reason why the Notre Dame loss isn’t an easy one to swallow. Bottom line is, Clemson’s chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years are bleak if the Tigers don’t handle their business regardless of the caliber of the opposition.
Brownell said that’s the primary focus for his team with the majority of the ACC schedule still to play, even if it’s not as opportunistic as it once was.
“I know what you’re getting at, but we’re not really talking about the NCAA Tournament,” Brownell said. “We’re just trying to get better, trying to win the next game and play well the next time out. … Then we’ll see where we are after while.”
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks