“An emotional 24 hours.”
That’s how Brad Brownell described the whirlwind that was Selection Sunday for his Clemson men’s basketball team. The Tigers’ veteran coach was adamant after his team handedly beat NC State a third time this season in last week’s ACC Tournament quarterfinals that Clemson had done enough to be an NCAA Tournament team.
The selection committee didn’t agree. Clemson was one of the first four at-large candidates to be left out of the field. That despite the Tigers winning 23 games, finishing its third-place season in the ACC with 15 league wins and having a winning record against the first two quadrants, including four Quad 1 victories.
Brownell’s team is now trying to turn its attention to Wednesday’s first-round matchup with Morehead State as part of the National Invitation Tournament. Speaking on Monday for the first time since learning Clemson’s postseason fate, though, Brownell didn’t hold back on what he firmly believes was an NCAA Tournament snub.
“Certainly disappointed and a little bit angry with what’s taken place here with the selection committee,” Brownell said.
Brownell didn’t lay all of the blame at their feet. He said his team has to take some responsibility by putting together a resume that made cases for and against the Tigers, who lost four games against the bottom two quadrants. The lowlights were a road loss to a South Carolina team that finished in the bottom third of the SEC, a Quad 4 loss on a neutral floor to Loyola-Chicago and another Quad 4 setback to a Louisville team that won just four games all season.
“All the teams are very similar in certain ways,” Brownell said. “We all have our warts. We all have things we’ve done. Accomplishments. Big wins. One of the things I told our teams is unfortunately we lost a couple of games that we probably shouldn’t, and we put it in the committee’s hands. And when you do that, then sometimes you’re not always going to get the call you want.
“Having said all of that, I still adamantly feel like they made a mistake.”
Part of Brownell’s frustration took aim at how heavily the selection committee appeared to weigh the metrics rather than on-court results. One of the biggest perceived knocks on Clemson was its non-conference strength of schedule, which ranked 315th out of 352 Division I teams, according to KenPom. Penn State was the only non-conference win the Tigers notched over a team in the top 100 of the NET rankings.
Yet that win was part of a 6-4 record Clemson had against teams that are in this year’s tournament. The Tigers also had a 4-0 record against fellow ACC bubble teams NC State and Pittsburgh, which either tied or finished below Clemson in the league standings. NC State, an 11 seed in the South Regional, avoided Dayton all together while Pitt will play Mississippi State in the First Four on Tuesday.
Once he saw Pitt – a team Clemson beat on the road in their only meeting this season – pop up as one of the last teams into the bracket during Sunday’s selection show, Brownell said he knew that wasn’t a good sign for Clemson. Brownell said he understands that metrics are useful in some cases since not everybody plays each other, but they’re “way too much now,” he added.
“Obviously the head-to-head games speak to themselves,” Brownell said. “It’s crazy when you’re all this close, and we’re not going to look at playing each other on the court? I know that’s the outrage – and it should be – from our fan base. I’m proud of our fan base for that. Because that makes zero sense.
“This has been a very challenging time, but again we had chances to take care of our business and we didn’t. We left it up to the committee, and unfortunately maybe the metrics are more important than common sense, head to head or watching games. I feel bad about that.”
Asked if he felt like name recognition that certain league schools have played a part in Clemson being bypassed, Brownell started his answer by saying he’d like to think that’s not the case.
“But politics? Any of that? Do some research,” he added.
Brownell said he may have to rethink some of his non-conference scheduling strategies going forward if metrics are going to be weighed this heavily by the committee, but he also doesn’t feel like Clemson is getting much help from the ACC in that regard.
Aside from the fact that the conference’s more high-profile programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and NC State usually get invites to marquee non-conference tournaments against other high-end competition, Brownell noted Clemson rarely gets paired with what’s projected to be one of the Big Ten’s better teams in the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Brownell used this season’s Penn State game as an example. While Penn State ended up outplaying preseason expectations, the Nittany Lions were picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the 14-team league. Meanwhile, Clemson was projected to finish 11th out of 15 ACC teams, which is “ why they put us together,” Brownell theorized.
“This is a complaint that I’ve stated to the league office for years: We’re not all treated the same in the league,” Brownell said. “In the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, I’ve been the head coach at Clemson for 13 years, and I find it unbelievably ironic that, in one of those years, we can’t play Indiana? I’m from southern Indiana. That’s not a good TV story? We can’t sell that? They’re usually one the best teams in the Big Ten. We can’t bring them to Clemson one time? Or I can’t go back to Indiana? Or Purdue for that matter? Those are challenging games that obviously, if we win them, are very rewarding.
“It’s the same with some of the non-conference tournaments. The Battle for Atlantis. The Maui (Invitational). Those are rotated every four years, but Carolina, Duke and a lot of the bigger-name basketball bluebloods, they get to go to those a lot more than we really ever do. So we’ve got to go find other things.”
Brownell said he got a call from league commissioner Jim Phillips following Sunday’s selections, and the two talked for about 20 minutes. Brownell aired some of the same grievances during their conversation. And after the ACC got just five teams into the tournament for the second straight year, Brownell said he’s hopeful his message will start resonating.
“It’s just not good enough for the league to be getting five teams in the tournament,” he said. “It’s just not.”
Brownell said missing out on the NCAA Tournament doesn’t take away from what his team has accomplished this season. But it comes with a hurt that’s going to be hard to shake for everyone involved.
“At the end of the day, I’m just really proud of this team,” he said. “We had a really good year. Excited to keep playing more games. Twenty-three wins and 14 ACC wins. This group’s got a lot to be proud of. I also want to thank our fans. We had a great turnout this year, especially later in the season.
“I heard from our fans, too, that the NCAA Tournament is a big deal. And to be this close, we’d all love to be playing. And I know our fans would love to be following us. I hurt for them as well.”