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Postseason outlook for Clemson men’s basketball

After the conclusion of Saturday’s emotional Senior Day victory over Boston College, in which seniors Jaron Blossomgame, Sidy Djitte and Avry Holmes all showed out, one could not help but reflect on Clemson’s testy regular season and its postseason implications.

In his postgame press conference, veteran Head Coach Brad Brownell made an appropriate metaphor comparing this year’s Clemson basketball slate to a hard-fought boxing match.

“This has been, obviously, a year where we’ve been punched in the gut several times and probably taken a couple standing eight counts,” Brownell said. “But we certainly haven’t given in.”

Highlighted by tough stretches, such as losing five of six games late in conference play by two possessions or less, Clemson’s 2016-17 season has been a journey unlike any experienced by a Brownell-coached squad. With the ACC stacking up as probably the most competitive conference ever this year, the Tigers came close multiple times to knocking off some of the conference’s top-tier teams, thus establishing themselves as NCAA Tournament material.

However, the Tigers were forced to endure countless heartbreaking losses, even in games that they were never favored to win. As a result, Clemson currently finds itself on the outside looking in with regard to March Madness projections, and the Tigers’ hopes of earning their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 currently hang in the balance.

This week’s ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn poses as the last chance for the Tigers to prove that they do indeed belong in the Big Dance. It also poses as the ultimate indicator of what direction this program will go in. While star senior Jaron Blossomgame, one of the most highly decorated players in program history, is nearing the conclusion of his illustrious Clemson career, there are several young players waiting in the wing to take over as the team’s leaders on and off of the court following his departure. How those players combine to finish this season will serve as an adequate gauge for what to expect from Clemson in the coming seasons.

The Tigers have overcome a bevy of adversarial situations this season, never bowing down when less resilient teams likely would have. Despite their lack of depth down low and not being a powerhouse in a conference filled with blue bloods, the Tigers have proved that they do indeed belong in the conversation among quality teams of the ACC.

Now is the time for that conversation to translate into action, as the ACC Tournament will allow the Tigers to show the college basketball world what they are made of. Needing multiple wins to have a shot at a March Madness bid, the Tigers certainly have their work cut out for them. But, if the “Clemson Grit” culture that Brownell has instilled in Tigertown rings true, no task in Brooklyn should pose as too difficult for the Tigers to overcome.

Clemson (16-14, 6-12) is the 12th seed in the ACC Tournament and will battle the 13th-seeded North Carolina (NC) State Wolfpack (15-16, 4-14) in the opening round on Tuesday, March 7. The Tigers recently beat the Wolfpack at home, garnering a four-point victory in what was a hotly contested matchup. Sporting a lame duck coach in Mark Gottfried, the Wolfpack truly have nothing to lose in Brooklyn, needing to win five games in five days to earn a spot in the Big Dance. Therefore, the Tigers cannot afford to overlook the scrappy NC State bunch.

If a win is earned in round one, the Tigers will take on the Duke Blue Devils (23-8, 11-7), the fifth-seeded team of the tournament that has been struggling down the stretch. Teeming with as much raw talent as any team in the conference, the Blue Devils have been like the Tigers in that they have been relatively unpredictable throughout ACC play. However, with regard to the Tigers’ chances in that matchup, the talented but streaky Blue Devils are definitely beatable, indicated as much by Clemson’s near-victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month.

From there, the Tigers will meet the Louisville Cardinals (24-7, 12-6), a talent-laden team featuring plenty of size and scoring options. Trouncing the Tigers at home in late January, the Cardinals arguably boast more matchup problems for Clemson than any other ACC team. 

For the Tigers to defeat NC State, Duke and Louisville, they might find themselves officially off of the bubble and into the Big Dance come Selection Sunday on March 12, regardless of how they fare in the semifinals or championship of the ACC Tournament. Of course, an ACC Tournament title would result in an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, but the Tigers’ strength of schedule and solid play down the stretch could be sufficient enough to warrant a spot in March Madness if they were only to earn those three aforementioned wins this week.

Rest assured, the Tigers will fight valiantly in Brooklyn, but whether or not a spot in the NCAA Tournament or the National Invitation Tournament is in the cards for them will rest on their fate in late-game scenarios this week. The Tigers have consistently come up short in tight-knit situations against top-tier ACC foes since January, making it fitting that three legendary programs serve as their first three potential opponents in the ACC Tournament.

If the Tigers are to join the ranks of the best and the brightest in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, they have to prove that they belong, and the big stage of the Barclays Center will be the site of their final attempt at doing so. How they fare there will determine how history remembers this remarkably resilient Clemson Tigers team. Earning wins is all that matters at this point in the season, and the Tigers are in a favorable position to collect several impressive ones this week and beyond. 

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