Photo by © Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Basketball

Finishing strong

March 19, 2019
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CLEMSON -- Elijah Thomas couldn’t help but let his mind wander on Selection Sunday.

The returning senior was practicing with the rest of his teammates inside an empty Littlejohn Coliseum. A year ago on that same day, he was awaiting his team’s destination for the NCAA Tournament.

There was some practice time, but a watch party that followed as Clemson’s name came across the screen to get an invite to the Big Dance for the first time since 2011. There was nothing but smiles, and Brad Brownell knew his team could make a bit of a run, which they ultimately did.

But on this year’s Selection Sunday, there was no watch party. There were barely any smiles. There was, however, still a practice. Something to prepare for. Thomas and the rest of the team were aware of what their fate most likely would be - a spot in the 2019 National Invitational Tournament.

During Clemson’s hour-long practice in which the Tigers did 15 minutes of skill work and then played to work on getting their wind back, Thomas’ eyes were fixed on the ceiling.

“Today I caught myself just staring at our Sweet 16 banner,” Thomas wrote in a tweet on Sunday evening.

“Today I caught myself just staring at our Sweet 16 banner,” Thomas wrote in a tweet on Sunday evening.

Something tells us he probably wasn’t the only one.

This was a player who ultimately decided to return to Clemson for his final season of eligibility, along with seniors Shelton Mitchell, David Skara, and leading scorer Marcquise Reed. These returning starters all played an instrumental part in Clemson’s Sweet 16 run just one year ago when they were picked to finish 13th in the ACC.

As the No. 5 seed, they silenced doubters who all wanted to pick the ever-popular 12-5 upset when Clemson handled business against New Mexico State. Then, the exclamation point of the opening weekend came when the Tigers gave four-seeded Auburn a 31-point ass kicking that made the 2019 National Championship game look respectable.

At the time, Brownell knew he had a fantastic team. He’d been on record saying that if the Tigers had Donte Grantham, Clemson’s best player whose final season ended early due to a torn ACL, Clemson was a Final Four team. The run ended with a 76-80 loss to No. 1-seed Kansas.

But Clemson finished that season 25-10, 11-7 in the ACC. The 25 wins tied the most in program history, and the 11 conference wins are the most in program history. It was the first Sweet 16 appearance in 21 years.

With those four senior starters returning for the 2018-19 campaign, the goal was to match that success and make another run. The thought process was that a team that exceeded expectations could very well do it again with what they had coming back.

There was no reason not to think that.

But the reality that has harshly set is that this team is not like the 2017-18 team that soared to the Sweet 16 and set Clemson milestones. This year’s team, in this writer's’ eyes, is one that is more comparable to Clemson’s 2016-17 squad - a group that ended its season in the NIT and had plenty of heartbreak along the way.

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Shelton Mitchell and Brad Brownell discuss a late-game situation earlier this season.

The losses tell the story. The 2016 team finished with a 17-16 record where ten of those 16 losses were by five points or fewer. Six of those losses were by three points or less, including ones to Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and yes, North Carolina. That team couldn’t find a way to close the deal - like blowing a 22-point lead to Oakland in the first round of the NIT -  and also wound up on the wrong end of some pretty tough breaks.

Much like this year’s team, which lost six games by two points or less. Brownell noted Monday that if one or two of those games ended a bit differently, then we would have been having a completely different conversation.

The bizarre aspect of all of this is that the two teams Clemson beat in the NCAA Tournament last year are back dancing once again in almost the same exact spots. Auburn just went on a nice run with Bruce Pearl and won the SEC Tournament to become a 5-seed. New Mexico State? Well, they’re back as a 12-seed, but this time they are playing the Tigers from Auburn.

And the Clemson Tigers are nowhere to be found.

One of the most critical aspects of this year’s Clemson basketball team is that the veteran leadership has given them much-needed mental toughness. Time after time, gut-punch after gut-punch, the Tigers have had to pull themselves up off the mat to get ready to play another game that matters.

And that’s an aspect that this writer can’t stress enough how hard it actually is to do.

“I think these guys have shown a lot of grit. We’ve been hit in the stomach multiple times,” Brownell said after a Senior Day win over Syracuse.

“I think these guys have shown a lot of grit. We’ve been hit in the stomach multiple times,” Brownell said after a Senior Day win over Syracuse. “It’s hard - we talk about it a lot - when you put so much into things, and you prepare well, and you compete hard, and something happens, and you lose a game, and then you gotta get right back.”

Now the Tigers and this senior class are facing their toughest challenge yet this season - a date with Wright State in the NIT on Tuesday night after falling to N.C. State by one point in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The game was regarded by many as almost a “play-in game.”

When you have aspirations for an NCAA Tournament bid, especially with what Clemson was able to do last year, the NIT is sobering. Like when there’s a 10-dollar cover at your favorite bar where all your friends are hanging out. But you have no cash, so you end up having to find a different spot.

You don’t want to settle for that spot. Nobody does.

Brownell even mentioned Monday that he had just gotten off the phone with N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts, who is also making an appearance in this year’s NIT. The two talked about how tough it’d be to get their players ready for a game they probably would much rather not be playing in.

But it’s Brownell’s job to figure out a way to get his players there. To figure out how to get them to go from disappointed to motivated in a matter of days for a tournament that doesn’t necessarily matter in the grand scheme of things, especially for these seniors.

“We know we were right there, Brownell said. “Obviously, these guys wanted to do more than want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. I think if we had gotten to the tournament, we could do some good things.

“But we’re in this tournament. Now we got to try and regroup and refocus. There’s a chance to still continue to play for things. Hopefully, our guys will approach it right.”

The way we see it, Clemson has two options on Tuesday night: look back at a season full of "what-ifs" or look ahead to salvage what's left of it.

But it can't afford to look up towards that Sweet 16 banner hanging from the Littlejohn rafters.

Discussion from...

Finishing strong

Tigers Rise
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This article had my mind/emotions all over the place. I can't decide if I should be pissed or root for this group like crazy. Great piece.
Barnyard Bird
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I agree, got me jacked up!
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