Ron Morris

Morris: Clemson sits squarely on the bubble

Clemson coach Oliver Purnell
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell

CLEMSON'S CHANCES OF reaching the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season are fading like the afternoon sun, hindered by a schedule backloaded with road games and by being in a league no longer considered among the best in the country.

For now, Clemson is the ultimate bubble team for the NCAA tournament. Yet, despite being on the bubble, it is pretty clear cut what the Tigers need to do to earn a berth.

"As far as the tournament is concerned, we need to win games," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said this week, before his team let a 15-point lead slip away in Wednesday's loss at Maryland.

Let's break it down and determine how many games Clemson needs to win.

Clemson is 7-6 in the ACC and 19-8 overall. Its remaining games are at Florida State, at home against Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest. In all likelihood, Clemson will finish 8-8 in the league and 20-10 overall.

That will not get Clemson in the tournament, unless the Tigers win at least two games in the ACC tournament.

Clemson's resume is not the greatest. Its RPI is 36, and its strength of schedule is 34. Its best wins are against Butler on a neutral court and against Maryland and Florida State at home. Its only road win in the league is at last-place N.C. State.

Breaking even in the ACC will not help Clemson's cause because the league is not considered among the elite this season. Only Duke is considered a national title contender, and no other team in the league has elevated itself from good to great.

Still, Clemson controls its fate.

The Tigers will get off the bubble with is a win over Georgia Tech and another either at Florida State or at Wake Forest, where the Tigers have lost 17 in a row dating to 1990.

Records of 9-7 and 21-9 will be good enough for Clemson to get in, regardless of whether it advances in the ACC tournament.

So how did Clemson play its way into being a bubble team? The first factor came into play shortly after last season ended when guard Terrence Oglesby left school early to play in Europe.

Oglesby's departure transformed Clemson from a sure-fire NCAA tournament team into a possible NIT participant. Without Oglesby, Clemson went from having a versatile offense that could stretch a defense from the basket to well beyond the 3-point line to a one-dimensional attack centered on Trevor Booker.

Even if Oglesby was missing his 3-point attempts, he opened the area around the basket for Booker to operate. There is a reason Booker's field-goal percentage has dropped from 57 percent a season ago to 51 percent this season as he faces constant double- and triple-teams in the post.

Additionally, Oglesby was successful 92 times from 3-point range last season. Andre Young is Clemson's leader in 3-pointers this season with 45.

A season ago, Clemson was third in the ACC with 37.4 percent accuracy on 3-pointers. This season, the Tigers are shooting 33.8 percent, which ranks seventh.

Without Oglesby, much of this season's success has come down to whether Clemson is shooting well. The game at Maryland on Wednesday was a perfect example. In building a 15-point first-half lead, Clemson made half of its 16 attempts on 3-pointers. As Maryland surged in the second half, Clemson made three of 14.

There are other factors, of course. While junior center Jerai Grant and senior forward David Potter have elevated their games, the maturation process has been slower than expected for highly touted freshmen Devin Booker, Milton Jennings and Noel Johnson.

Like most teams, Clemson also has had to deal with injuries. Point guard Demontez Stitt was slowed by a foot injury, and guard Tanner Smith tweaked his ankle. Otherwise, Clemson is healthy as it heads into the homestretch.

"Our biggest concern is just being healthy," Purnell said of the stretch run. "One of the reasons we're playing well right now is we have all hands on deck and everybody is pretty healthy. ... I'm knocking on wood as I say it: Everybody appears to be healthy."

Purnell might also want to knock on wood that Clemson wins on Sunday at Florida State or the following Sunday at Wake Forest. A win in either game will propel Clemson into the NCAA tournament.

Otherwise, Clemson will head to the ACC tournament firmly planted on the bubble.