After spending nearly three months trying to figure out various ways to compete with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse – oh, and not to mention Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament champion Virginia, Clemson basketball was ultimately shot down in its quest for an NCAA Tournament berth by a computer.
How else can you explain the Tigers not receiving a bid to the “Big Dance,” while North Carolina State – who Clemson not only topped in the ACC standings, but also beat on the court by 17 last month – getting a bid and the Tigers not?
Such is life “on the bubble,” and Clemson has lived in its precarious state for weeks now. The Tigers will now face Georgia State in the NIT Tuesday (ESPNU, 9 p.m.).
“It's a little bit of a stretch, because we kind of knew, we really haven't been on the bubble watch lately,” Tiger coach Brad Brownell told the News-Sentinel prior to his learning that the seventh-place Wolfpack would be selected over his sixth-place Tigers. “But it's not a complete stretch when you look at our record and all of that.”
As it turned out, his “record and all of that” didn't really matter. What mattered was the analytics, not the actual basketball.
North Carolina State held advantages over Clemson in categories such as RPI and strength of schedule, and the Wolfpack had one more win (21-13) overall than the Tigers (20-12). But when the two teams finished their ACC schedule, Clemson (10-8) finished higher than the Wolfpack (9-9) and as mentioned, pounded North Carolina State 73-56 in mid-February in the teams' only meeting this season.
At that point in the season, Brownell felt that his team had put itself in a situation where it wouldn't control its own destiny.
“Really, when we lost (at Notre Dame) in double overtime,” Brownell explained, “where there was still a lot of season left, but we lost three games in a row, if you want to be honest, that's where we were probably in trouble.”
Trouble, but not finished.
The Tigers rallied to play well over the final weeks of the season and ultimately finished less than two seconds from probably getting the nod over the Wolfpack.
Earlier this month, the Tigers allowed Pitt to put on a furious rally at Clemson and sink a controversial jumper at the buzzer to force overtime, before the Panthers prevailed. That loss, coupled with not completing a play in the final second of its one-point loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament Friday, sealed the Tigers' fate. And Brownell acknowledged that.
“I do think that if we beat Pitt and we win (against Duke), I think we are right there,” Brownell said.
That scenario would've given Clemson a 7-1 mark in its final eight games. But regardless of the narrow defeats, the Tigers – as did North Carolina State – had support from Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Well, we've gotten beat by Clemson ( a 72-59 Tiger win in January), (Wake Forest) had beaten us,” Notre Dame had beaten us,” Krzyzewski explained. “People say, 'Well, they're not having a good season.' Well, they beat us. So they have to be pretty good.”
Brownell and his coaching staff discussed their postseason status regularly as the season wound down. However, given the nature of his roster, he limited the amount of attention he devoted to making the NCAA Tournament with his team.
“We tried to downplay it as much as possible because we are a young team,” Brownell said. “We knew that all of that extra talk was going to create more anxiety for our players and our players didn't need that.”
It's a simplistic approach, but Brownell preached the same message that he has for years, which is just focus on how each individual performs and the rest will take care of itself.
“You certainly have to talk about it a little bit,” Brownell said. “You have to be honest with your guys. But one of my things has always been that the better you play, the more you're going to win, which is going to create more important games to play in. Every game becomes more important because you are either in the tournament or on the bubble.
“We knew in our situation that we probably had to finish in the top five in the ACC.”
Or as it turned out, seventh, with the computers on your side, actual basketball results be damned.