There’s no such thing as guarantees in sports (Joe Namath, you’re excused).
That’s especially true in one of the more chaotic, unpredictable feats in athletics –the NCAA college basketball tournament. You don’t earn the nickname “March Madness” for nothing.
But for as impossible as it is to determine which teams will win once they’re in the tournament, it’s almost as difficult to pick who gets in at all.
You don’t have to tell that to Clemson. The Tigers’ last NCAA tournament berth came in 2011, coach Brad Brownell’s first season. Since then, Clemson has repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of the bubble.
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That was the case in both 2014 and 2016, when the Tigers had a chance to sneak in but missed out. The safest way to ensure that doesn’t happen this season? Don’t be on the bubble at all.
That is easier said than done, but the Tigers are certainly trending in that direction with a tremendous start to conference play. Clemson is tied for third in the ACC at 6-3 (17-4 overall) and ranked No. 20 in the nation, despite losing starting forward Donte Grantham for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Interpreted, that means the Tigers are not there yet, but they are on a tournament trajectory. Now they just have to take the next step.
Beating No. 19 North Carolina on Tuesday – no easy feat, even considering North Carolina has lost two straight – and Clemson will all but have cemented that its NCAA tournament drought ends this year.
At that point, Clemson would have victories over three teams in the current rankings (Ohio State, Florida, and the Tar Heels) and three others against teams that were previously ranked (Louisville, Florida State, and Miami). Considering it also has the No. 9 strength of schedule nationally (something the selection committee values), a signature win is about the only thing Clemson still needs.
Enter UNC, where interior and defensive struggles have finally caught up to the Tar Heels. In back-to-back losses, North Carolina is allowing its opponents to shoot 27-for-60 from 3, or close to 50 percent. Clemson only shot 35 percent from 3 the first time these teams met in January (an 87-79 UNC victory), so if the Tigers can exploit a weak perimeter defense, they’ll have a real chance.
Another point for Brownell and his team to exploit: North Carolina’s (almost) complete lack of an interior presence. North Carolina’s trio of freshman big men – Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman – combine to average 12.7 points and fewer than 10 rebounds per game. Offensively they are all lacking, and defensively they struggle to stop legitimate post players.
Clemson’s Elijah Thomas, who had 16 points in the first game, qualifies as such. The Tigers should look to feed him early and often inside. Then if North Carolina and coach Roy Williams try to double him, he’ll be able to kick to one of the Tigers’ litany of guards for an open shot on the wing.
This UNC team is not nearly the dominant one that won the national championship in April, but a victory would still count as Clemson’s best of the year. The Tar Heels have two All-ACC caliber players in Huntersville native Luke Maye and point guard Joel Berry, and they won’t be in a good mood having lost two straight.
But what if the Tigers pull it off? Well, it’ll be hard for the selection committee to extend their NCAA tournament drought any longer.