Clemson has held its own in the ACC the past three years, finishing with a winning record twice in perhaps the hardest league in college basketball. But slow starts in nonconference play are a big reason why the Tigers haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011.
Brad Brownell, Clemson’s seventh-year coach, has put an emphasis on getting off to a fast start, beginning Friday when the Tigers play host to Georgia in the renovated Littlejohn Coliseum.
“In nonconference play, we haven’t played up to par,” Brownell said. “Sometimes it’s been juggling lineups, figuring out ways that we can play better. Hopefully the excitement and the enthusiasm with our home court will draw more people to Littlejohn in November and December, and make it a more difficult place to play.”
Clemson’s record before the start of ACC play is 24-12 over the past three seasons, but there are some bad losses. The Tigers have two losses to UMass, as well as losses to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. Those all turned out to be costly come postseason selection time.
In the 2015-16 season, the Tigers went 7-5 in nonconference play – with losses to UMass, Minnesota, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia.
Tigers guard Avry Holmes said being overconfident was a factor.
“We maybe thought that we were better than we really were,” he said. “In the Christmas break, we kind of humbled ourselves.”
After the Christmas break, the Tigers won five of six games, with the only loss coming on the road against North Carolina. Clemson earned wins over Syracuse, Duke, Miami and Louisville. Syracuse made the Final 4, while Miami earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Duke was a 4-seed. Louisville finished 23-8 (12-6) and would’ve been a high seed had it not self-imposed a postseason ban.
“I knew we were a talented team, and it was very frustrating early on for me with the struggles,” star forward Jaron Blossomgame said. “I knew at some point it would click for us..”
The Tigers finished 10-8 in ACC play. But after losing to Georgia Tech in overtime in the opening game of the ACC Tournament, didn’t earn a spot in the NIT.
“Not a lot of teams win 10 conference games and do not make the postseason,” Blossomgame said. “It’s kind of crazy that that happened.”
In addition to Georgia, the Tigers have tough tests against Davidson, Missouri or Xavier, Nebraska, Alabama and South Carolina in nonconference play.