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Playing the Right Way: Remembering Clemson’s best year in decades

David Perez: Photo Editor

Elijah Thomas (14) was the anchor of the Clemson defense that helped the Tigers overachieve and make it to the Sweet Sixteen this season. 

The Clemson Tigers were defeated on March 23 in the Sweet Sixteen by the Kansas Jayhawks after mounting a furious second-half comeback that included cutting a 20-point deficit second to just 6 with around 2 and a half minutes left to play. Kansas’ size and versatility proved just too much to handle down the stretch though, as the Jayhawks pulled out an 80-76 victory. The defeat brought to an end one of the best seasons of basketball that the Clemson Tigers have ever enjoyed.

Before the start of the season, the Tigers were predicted to finish 13th out of 15 teams in the ACC. Considering Clemson’s lack of defining success as a basketball program in years prior, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would spend yet another season withering away in the cellar of the best conference in college basketball, unable to play up to the level of their competition. 

The team lacked an explosive, singular, driving force; a player who, through sheer exertion of physical skill and willpower, could deliver himself and his teammates to victory in the moments in which he was needed. Instead, the team was composed almost entirely of upperclassmen who had skill sets that were complementary to most play styles, but were never meant to be the focal point of an elite basketball program.

By the end of the regular season, the Tigers were 22-8 and ranked as the 18th team in the country by the AP poll. The Tigers went undefeated in the month of December and, despite a season-ending injury to senior forward Donte Grantham in January, finished the season with marquee wins over celebrated programs like Ohio State, Florida, Miami and North Carolina. The Tigers finished 3rd in the ACC, ahead of all but Duke and the #1 overall team in the nation — Virginia. 

In postseason play, the Tigers were narrowly beaten by Virginia in the conference tournament semi-finals after a first round victory over Boston College and were given a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament, making their first appearance since 2011. They handily defeated New Mexico State in the first round and eviscerated 4-seed Auburn by 31 points in the second round en route to the team’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 21 years. 

By all measures, this was the best season that Clemson basketball has had since the very first Harry Potter book was released. 

Legendary basketball coach, Larry Brown, often talked about “playing the right way.” Brown is the only coach to win a championship at both the professional and collegiate ranks, with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and the Kansas Jayhawks in 1988. Ironic, then that it was Kansas who ended Clemson’s spectacular season. When Larry Brown talked about playing the game the “right way,” he was not referring to an offensive system or a defensive scheme. There were no X’s and O’s, no details on pick-and-roll coverages. 

Instead, he was talking about a mindset and an attitude. To play the game the right way is to play strict defense, to be accountable, and to place the team’s needs above one’s own aspirations. That is why this Clemson team defied so many expectations this season: they played the right way. 

It’s a credit to the players and to Brad Brownell and his coaching staff that the team managed to do this. Without a clear-cut star, it would have been easy for any one of the players to take it on themselves to be the leading man, scoring as many points as possible while hogging the ball, demanding more minutes, more touches and more chances to bump their draft stock. Instead, the team bought in on the vision of a collection of talent that played for one another. 

Clemson’s top five scorers all averaged double digits. The fifth leading scorer on the team, Elijah Thomas (10.7) was within five points per game of the leading scorer on the team, Marcquise Reed (15.7).  That kind of balance made up for the fact that Clemson lacked an Andrew Wiggins or a Marvin Bagley III. In any situation during a game, the opposition had to worry about stopping five Tigers rather than just one or two.

That style of play requires real sacrifice. It might sound silly to say that playing a winning style is a form a sacrifice, but it’s true. It takes guys with true character to buy in to the vision of what a team like this can be. There might not be a Clemson Tiger in the NBA draft this June. 

There will not be a page on the record books designated for an individual on this team. Instead, there will be a generation of students and fans who will talk about the team that managed to defy their expectations and reach a level of chemistry and synchronization that is rarely seen in a sport so full of turnover.

They were the best team to play for Clemson in over two decades, they had a run together that they should be proud of forever, and they did it all by playing the game the right way.    

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