Graham Neff may be enjoying the ride with Clemson’s men’s basketball team so far this season more than most.
Nearly a full year after the Tigers’ athletic director publicly expressed disappointment in the program’s shortcomings during the 2021-22 season, Neff is watching Brad Brownell’s team shatter expectations. Clemson, picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the ACC, finds itself looking down at everyone else in the league with the calendar turned to February.
The Tigers (18-5, 10-2 ACC) are in first place heading into today’s game against No. 23 Miami at Littlejohn Coliseum (3 p.m., ACC Network). Clemson, ranked 20th this week, is back in the polls for the first time since 2021 and vying for its first regular-season conference title since 1990 with eight games to go.
“There’s still a lot of season left to play in terms of position for the NCAA Tournament, but I just couldn’t be more proud of where they’re at,” Neff said.
Neff credited not only Brownell but the player leadership on a team that’s got plenty of veterans at the forefront of the charge. Fifth-year senior Hunter Tyson (16.3 points, 9.7 rebounds ) is a bonafide ACC Player of the Year candidate while fourth-year junior Chase Hunter (14.5 points) is the Tigers’ second-leading scorer at the point. Junior big PJ Hall (14 points, 5.5 rebounds) has gotten healthy and consistent in building on his breakout sophomore season, and Boston College transfer guard Brevin Galloway has added 10.6 points per game in his seventh and final season of college basketball.
That kind of experience was one of the reasons Neff said he discussed a different level of expectations for the basketball program with Brownell going into the veteran coach’s 13th season at the helm. Bringing in two new assistants that took some extra spending to land, specifically former Missouri-Kansas City head coach Billy Donlon, was a part of those conversations, too.
But even Neff admitted he didn’t see this drastic of a turnaround coming.
“You can just feel how the team would come together,” Neff said. “Now did I anticipate we’d be this successful, so to speak, or No. 1 atop the ACC in February? I don’t know that you had that level of specific anticipation, but I just felt that, in discussions with Brad and investment with staff turnover and staff retention in some cases, that’s a lot of what I talked about. It’s my job from an administration standpoint is invest (at a level) that would match where the expectations are.”
Yet even the best season in the program’s recent history hasn’t come without some controversy when it comes to Clemson’s postseason outlook.
Despite an impressive overall record that is still accompanied by a top-25 ranking at the moment, Clemson is widely viewed as a team inching toward the NCAA Tournament bubble if not already on it. Metrics are a big reason why.
The Tigers fell multiple spots following their loss at Boston College earlier this week and enter today’s game at No. 65 in the NET rankings, which are used by the NCAA’s selection committee to help evaluate and ultimately select at-large teams. Seven teams in the ACC, four of which have more losses than Clemson, are ranked higher.
The formula to determine each team’s ranking takes into account a number of factors, including strength of schedule, quality wins and losses, where games are played and margin of victory. The most glaring issue for the Tigers is 60% of their losses are against teams in the bottom two quadrants. Two of them (South Carolina and Loyola Chicago) are in the dreaded fourth quadrant, which are viewed as the worst kind in the eyes of the selection committee.
“I’m certainly well aware of our resume, and we’ve had a couple losses to teams that aren’t highly ranked,” Neff said. “And I know the ACC isn’t as highly ranked as it’s been in the past.”
The good news for the Tigers is they have a combined record of 7-2 against the top two quadrants, and Clemson can improve it with a win over Miami, which presents a Quad 2 opportunity. The Tigers’ body of work, though, projects them as a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to BracketMatrix.com, which compiles a vast array of up-to-date bracket predictions to generate estimated seeds for each team projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
Neff said he’s had “a lot of dialogue” about the NET with other athletic directors and administrators around the ACC, though he said he doesn’t know if a recalibration of the equation that formulates the NET is needed. But, based on the present and the past, he didn’t say one wasn’t warranted either.
Four years ago, Clemson was passed over for what would’ve been a second straight NCAA Tournament berth despite having a NET of 35. Fellow ACC member NC State had an even higher ranking (34) at the end of that 2018-19 season but was also left out.
“Neither of us were at-larges,” Neff said. “So it gets back to it’s one thing. Whatever the calculus of it, does that need to be revamped?
“I think there are curious examples where Clemson is one. We’re not the only one. I know a lot of the national hoops writers bring that up like, ‘Gosh, well, this doesn’t make sense’ or ‘You had this win, but you drop.’ I think we’re a test case of it, but we’re not the only one, so I think the national narrative of the NET, what’s the use and how does it work, I think it’s certainly gotten more awareness this year.”
There are other metrics the selection committee takes into account when determining at-large teams, including KPI and Sagarin ratings (Clemson is 45 in KPI and 57 in Sagarin). Neff said he’s not necessarily opposed to the way at-large selections are made as long as the process remains multi-faceted.
“All the metrics that come in, (the NET) is one of those,” Neff said. “Whether it needs revamping or not, so long as it’s just one of them and not the one, I think that’s kind of where it sits. That’s my lens on recognizing the evaluation of it, maybe not the equation of it.”
Clemson has a mixture of opportunities and landmines left on the schedule beyond today. A trip to North Carolina (43 NET) awaits next weekend as do road games at NC State (38) and Virginia (13). Clemson also has home dates with Florida State (208), Syracuse (100) and Notre Dame (188) and a trip to last-place Louisville (329) on the docket.
Dear Old Clemson has added the Tiger Sack Pack to our online store. Save by getting the Two Pack of signed cards from two of the nation’s top defensive ends, Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas.
Now there is a new way you can support Clemson student-athletes. Purchase collectibles from Dear Old Clemson and the proceeds with go to support Clemson student-athletes.
Dear Old Clemson is doing NIL the ‘Clemson way’, but we need your help to make sure we build a sustainable, repeatable model that will help keep Clemson competitive with the other top programs around the nation.
Dabo Swinney: “We need your assistance more than ever to provide meaningful NIL opportunities. Tiger Impact, Dear Old Clemson and other collectives allow student-athletes to utilize their voice and platform to maximize their NIL opportunities and strengthen their impact in the community.”
“Tiger Impact, Dear Old Clemson and other collectives need your support to help provide meaningful NIL opportunities for our student athletes. We are doing things the right way, the Clemson way with integrity as a non-negotiable and we fully support the mission of these groups.”
Join the Tiger Club or Lady Tiger Club to help these great student-athletes and help the Tigers compete at the highest level!