It’s been nearly a calendar year since Graham Neff penned a letter expressing his disappointment in the 2021-22 season for Clemson’s men’s basketball team falling well short of his expectations.
Neff, Clemson’s athletic director, brought head coach Brad Brownell back for a 13th season in charge of the program, but there was a clear understanding that the goal this year was to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet it didn’t happen.
Clemson was one of the first four at-large candidates bypassed for this year’s tournament when the 68-team field was announced Sunday, but Neff has already decided to bring Brownell back for another season. Part of the reason is because, in Neff’s mind, there’s a caveat with this year’s team.
“We weren’t selected (Sunday), but I view us as an NCAA Tournament team,” Neff said.
Speaking to a small group of reporters Monday, Neff went on to explain that Clemson’s season was “historic in a lot of ways.” He referenced the program-record 14 ACC regular-season wins, which helped Clemson earn the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, the highest of the Brownell era. Clemson’s 22 regular-season wins also tied the most of Brownell’s tenure.
But a pair of Quad 4 blemishes to Loyola-Chicago and Louisville as well as a non-conference strength of schedule ranked in the 300s ultimately cost Clemson a bid, making the Tigers the first top-3 team in the ACC to not make the tournament since Virginia in 2000.
“Just think we’re a tournament team,” Neff said. “Watch the games and the resume. That’s just how I view it. That was the anticipation maybe going into the selection show. I saw all the brackets and due diligence, so I know it was probably a 50-50 proposition, but you just never know. Therefore, for it to come through and for us to be on the wrong side of it, it’s just really, really frustrating.”
Like many coaches, Brownell has his supporters and detractors within the fan base, and Neff isn’t naive to the latter.
There’s a faction that’s grown tired of the close calls and the wait-until-next-year mentality. They point to the fact that Clemson has now missed out on the NCAA Tournament 10 times in Brownell’s tenure. The Tigers are back in the National Invitation Tournament, where they will open with Morehead State on Wednesday at Littlejohn Coliseum. With Brownell’s annual salary at $2.75 million, though, they will argue that’s not what Clemson is paying for.
But Neff pointed to the success the program has had over the last six seasons as a key timeframe for his evaluation since Clemson has ramped up its investment in the men’s and women’s basketball programs during that stretch. There were renovations to Littlejohn Coliseum midway through Brownell’s tenure, including Swann Pavilion, which houses basketball’s practice facilities. Later this spring, the athletic department expects to get approval on a $40-million facility operations project that will add another practice court.
Neff noted that Clemson has also increased the salary pool for its assistant coaches recently. Since the 2017-18 season, Clemson has made four postseason appearances, including all but one of its trips to the NCAA Tournament under Brownell.
“I don’t have all the stats of our conference winning percentage (in the last six seasons), but it’s really good,” Neff said. “You have to take into account the full tenure. No question. But where the program is at now and what the immediate future looks like, let alone the more recent past, I feel really confident and excited about where we sit.”
Another factor in Neff’s decision was that he didn’t sense apathy among the majority of the fan base, which was reflected in attendance at Littlejohn Coliseum. Neff said average attendance was higher than it was last season, which didn’t hurt the bottom line.
“From a financial standpoint, we exceeded our plans for season ticket sales and single-game sales,” Neff said. “From a business lens, which is certainly part of my job, those are metrics that are important to the decision of any program. I just think this past year and where we’re at from a program standpoint, those things continue to track in a good direction.”
Brownell has three years left on his contract after this season, and Neff said he doesn’t anticipate any changes being made to that. Clemson is set to lose at least two starters off this year’s team in Brevin Galloway and leading scorer Hunter Tyson, but the expectation going forward continues to be the NCAA Tournament, Neff said.
“There’s a heavy perspective on the current health of the program,” he said. “Roster focuses next year, transfer portal, an NIL program in support of our current roster, all that points to a positive trend line for next year and to have a heck of a year next year.”