Athletic Director Graham Neff set a clear expectation for Clemson Men’s Basketball in 2023 in his letter last spring to boosters: they should be in the NCAA Tournament. The insinuation was if they weren’t, changes would be coming, and few doubted what the changes would be.
It was reasonably clear Neff was going to decide head coach Brad Brownell’s future with the program based on this season’s outcome.
The Tigers just set a school record for ACC wins in a season with 14 victories. Unfortunately, that isn’t the cold hard lock for the NCAA Tournament that it would have been years ago.
One must delve into the details to understand why 14 wins in the ACC isn’t what it used to be. For many years during the ACC’s glory years, the teams would have played 14-16 games within the conference total. With expansion, the league increased to 18 games, and just recently in 2019 increased to 20 games.
Additionally, the strength of the ACC hasn’t been impressive this season. At least one metric rates the conference 7th in 2023.
The end result after the regular season is that bracketologists agree Clemson is not a tournament team right now. Joe Lunardi of ESPN lists the Tigers in the First Four out. Jerry Palm of CBS lists them on the wrong side of the bubble.
The harsh reality is that Clemson needs at least one victory, and very likely two, in the ACC Tournament to earn a berth in the Big Dance.
If the Tigers get those victories, then Neff’s expectations have been met, albeit barely.
If Clemson finds themselves on the wrong side of the bubble next Sunday, then Neff has a choice to make.
Neff made it clear in his letter that he believed Clemson should be successful both in the conference and nationally.
“I have an ambitious vision for Clemson Basketball – both the men’s and women’s programs – and what we can accomplish in the Atlantic Coast Conference and nationally. This is Clemson, and basketball is very important for our university and athletics department.”
Clemson has earned a double-bye in the conference tournament. They have achieved Neff’s first milestone.
The national milestone is within their grasp, but they must be clutch this week. They no longer get the benefit of the doubt. They will have to prove on the court that they are better than their NET ranking, which has doubted them all season due to inexcusable losses to South Carolina, Loyola Chicago, Boston College, and Louisville.
If Clemson Men’s Basketball must achieve two milestones, they still have more work to do to satisfy the AD
If the Tigers falter early in the ACC Tournament, Neff will have two choices. He could retain Brownell, citing the record-breaking ACC regular season and joining those who think the NET is a terrible tool for determining who should and shouldn’t be in the Big Dance. He could cry foul and say the Tigers should have been in the tourney, therefore they satisfied his expectations. That could be a hard sell with a large component of the fanbase.
His other option is to stick to his expectations and let Brownell go for not getting his team to the NCAA Tournament, despite the achievements within the conference. This could prove equally unpopular with a section of fans.
Neff’s decision to make a change in the leadership of the baseball program took courage, but there weren’t any conference win records or controversial metric rankings to interfere. The decision was straightforward. While many liked Monte Lee, there was little to defend his lack of progress.
Neff’s decision regarding the leadership of the men’s basketball program won’t be as simple and clean if the Tigers don’t get the victories they need in the ACC Tournament.