NCAA “bubble” talk now a reality for Clemson basketball

Price11Don’t look now but Clemson has quietly played its way onto the proverbial March Madness “bubble” and into the conversation for a possible postseason bid.

After outlasting Florida State in Tallahassee last night 62-56, the Tigers have now won four-straight games (tied for longest in the ACC this season) and six of their last eight. Clemson is now 14-8 overall and 6-4 in the ACC (6th place, since Syracuse no longer counts).

Common basketball sense tells you that sitting in sixth place in the country’s best basketball conference at worst puts you in the bubble conversation. Need proof? ESPN’s Mr. Bracketology Joe Lunardi has Clemson in his “first four out” in his updated bracket after last night.

I know, this sounds like crazy talk, right? Sure it does, especially if you saw this team play early in the season. Or even if you saw the Tigers play last week because it’s not pretty at times.

But style points has nothing to do with wins and losses, primarily the “Ws” because that’s the name of the game no matter how you chalk them up.

Think No. 3 Virginia or its fans care that they play a boring, slow-down style of hoops? They’ve chalked up 20 wins so far with just one loss and not a single player on the roster was a Top-100 rated recruit coming out of high school.

Which brings me to the ringleader of this conversation we’re having right now: Clemson head coach Brad Brownell.

I’ve said repeatedly that Brownell is one of the outstanding floor coaches in college basketball. He’s showing it once again this season by turning in likely his best coaching job since arriving in Clemson.

The Tigers aren’t blessed with an abundance of overall talent, something Brownell is fully responsible for as the head coach. He doesn’t have a KJ McDaniels-caliber player with the ability to play above the rim or take over in large stretches. He has two incredibly talented young forwards (Donte Grantham and Jaron Blossomgame), a veteran backcourt and three bigs turning in solid, rim-protecting play in the lane.

Instead, he’s winning again with the most important calling card and the signature of any Brownell-coached team: defense, rebounding and toughness. His team’s commitment to those three pillars have kept and will continue to keep the Tigers in and winning games against teams far superior in talent. Will they get blown out from time to time? Sure because this team struggles to score points.

They didn’t beat Louisville, but they went toe-to-toe with the Cards and avoided getting blown out when it looked like a 20-point rout was coming to start the second half. A lead that ballooned to more than 15 points was whistled to three inside of the final minute before falling to then No. 5 Louisville 58-52.

Three ACC road wins later and Clemson has squarely positioned itself on the bubble. The Tigers’ RPI (75) is still borderline from where it needs to be in order to feel comfortable and they do have a pair of wins over RPI Top-40 teams (Arkansas, LSU). They’re also 5-4 in road and neutral site games combined, much better than many bubbles ahead of them.

With eight games remaining, Clemson has three chances for signature, resume-building wins (twice against No. 10 Notre Dame and at No. 4 Duke). They also have three home games remaining against teams (Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia Tech) with a combined 7-23 conference record.

Clearly more work is left to be done for Brownell’s team. But they’re again positioned to control their own NCAA fate by winning against quality competition.

And at this point in the season, that’s something most Clemson fans wouldn’t admit to believing was possible a month ago, including me with that murderous schedule to begin ACC play.

Price Atkinson is a University of Kentucky graduate, lives in Greenville, SC and is a co-host on the “Straight up with Sturge” radio show on ESPN Upstate

Photo Courtesy of Clemson University

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