CHARLOTTE — INSIDE
When Brad Brownell sat down with a table full of reporters recently at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media gathering, he had to be impressed with the company he was keeping.
Not the reporters, mind you, but the basketball coaches at other tables. Over there was Miami’s Jim Larranaga and N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried. Soon to join the discussions were Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
Entering his fourth season as Clemson’s coach, Brownell knows he has one of the most difficult jobs in college basketball. His is a head-banging experience attempting to keep up with the ACC basketball Joneses while coaching at what is perceived as a football school.
Now, with conference expansion, Brownell’s job is that much tougher.
As the only major conference to expand for reasons other than football, the ACC has established itself as the best of the basketball leagues, perhaps the best ever.
Instead of trying to lift its program near the heights established for decades by Duke and North Carolina, the Clemsons of ACC basketball must also battle against newcomers Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse with reigning national champion Louisville to join the ranks for the 2014-15 season.
“Obviously, it’s tough from the league we’re in,” Brownell said, doing his best to remain understated. “We have great teams, great programs in our league. But I’m at a great school.”
Great school or not, Clemson always has struggled to keep pace in ACC basketball, never having won the league tournament championship and capturing one regular-season title, in 1990. By comparison, Duke has 19 regular-season and 19 tournament titles, and North Carolina counts 29 regular-season and 17 tournament crowns.
Of course, Duke and North Carolina annually compete for Final Four berths and national championships. Duke’s 15 trips to the Final Four have resulted in four national titles, and North Carolina’s 18 Final Four appearances have netted five national crowns. Clemson’s best postseason finish was an Elite Eight appearance in 1980.
Beginning this season, Clemson’s competition at the top will be lengthened to include all of the league’s newcomers. All have established coaches who run highly successful programs in Mike Brey of Notre Dame, Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, and eventually Rick Pitino of Louisville.
Among the three additions for this season, they count one national championship (Syracuse in 2003) and seven Final Four appearances. Louisville will add 10 Final Four showings and three national titles to the ACC’s prestige.
Even so, Brownell is not one to hang his head and bemoan Clemson’s circumstances. In fact, he continues to look at the brighter side of ACC expansion.
“It’s tough,” he said, “but it also opens opportunity from the standpoint of now we should be getting eight, nine or 10 teams in the (NCAA) tournament. So, if you can play well in your league and put yourself into position to finish in one of those top eight, nine spots, you have a chance to get to the tournament, and anything can happen when you get to the tournament.”
Getting to the tournament this season is not likely, not with a team that does not field a senior and faces a brutal non-conference and conference schedule. In addition to playing three quality opponents in the Charleston Classic, Clemson will play at Arkansas.
Then there is a stretch as January turns to February that includes six league games, including contests at Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Florida State, Syracuse and Notre Dame, a virtual NBA schedule for a youthful team.
“Certainly the night-in, night-out competition is going to be difficult,” Brownell said. “When you hit me in the middle of that five-out-of-six game stretch, I’m probably going to be battered a little bit.”
The flip side is Clemson’s home schedule, which includes games against Duke, highly regarded Virginia, N.C. State, Miami and Pittsburgh.
“You have great opportunities to win significant games because you have wonderful teams with great preseason, postseason rankings coming in there with high RPIs and you have a chance to beat them on your home court,” Brownell said.
Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson’s home court, long has been considered one of the best environs and one of the most difficult places for visiting teams to play. Clemson also recently announced plans to renovate and update Littlejohn, bringing it more in line with other arenas in the ACC.
“It’s happening everywhere,” Brownell said. “This is a time, you’re not going to catch up unless you make some positive steps, and I think our people see that.”
Unfortunately for Clemson basketball, the number of positive steps needed to catch up just increased with ACC expansion.