SAN DIEGO — Moments after Clemson secured a spot in the Sweet 16 on Sunday night, athletic director Dan Radakovich greeted head coach Brad Brownell outside the locker room with a fist bump and a smile.
It was a low-key celebration considering how much both men had riding on the success of this year’s Tigers.
Many expected Radakovich to make a coaching change last spring after Clemson finished 12th in the ACC and missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight season under Brownell. Seldom does a power-conference coach survive that long a drought, especially when the athletic director in charge of making that choice isn’t the one who hired him.
Radakovich instead showed patience with Brownell because he believed the coach was on the verge of a breakthrough. Not only did Radakovich note that 12 of Clemson’s 16 losses last season were by six or fewer points, he also pointed out that Brownell had more to sell on the recruiting trail with the school’s renovated arena and new practice facility open since fall 2016.
While Radakovich insists he was never close to making a coaching change last spring nor did he issue an NCAA tournament-or-bust ultimatum before this season, Brownell is no dummy. He admitted Sunday that he felt pressure to show progress both to save his own job and to validate Radakovich’s unpopular decision to retain him.
“I knew I needed to win this year,” Brownell said. “That’s okay. This is high-level basketball. You need to win.”
Granting Brownell a stay of execution certainly appears to be a shrewd decision with Clemson (25-9) playing in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 21 years. A Tigers team projected 13th in the ACC preseason poll in October instead finished tied for third place and is now one of the league’s four teams still alive heading into the second week of NCAA tournament.
Clemson opened NCAA tournament play on Friday night by making prognosticators look foolish for anointing 12th-seeded New Mexico State as a trendy upset pick. The fifth-seeded Tigers then demolished SEC co-champion Auburn in the second round on Sunday, building a 41-point lead midway through the second half before easing their foot off the accelerator.
As Clemson prepares for a Sweet 16 matchup with top-seeded Kansas on Friday in Omaha, Radakovich feels confident about the patience he showed when evaluating Brownell last spring. Brownell is one win away from matching Clemson’s best-ever performance in the NCAA tournament and two wins away from a Final Four appearance every bit as improbable as the one rival South Carolina made a year ago.
“He’s a great basketball coach,” Radakovich said. “The Xs and Os people I trust in the business have told me that ever since I’ve walked on Clemson’s campus. It really was just giving him the resources you need to compete in the ACC.”
The roots of Clemson’s ascendance date back to a philosophical shift Brownell made three years ago. He decided to dip into the transfer market more frequently in an effort to get older and find a new source of talent.
Five of the top seven players in Clemson’s rotation this season are transfers, including leading scorer Marcquise Reed, standout guard Shelton Mitchell and top big man Elijah Thomas. Reed became a target for Brownell after torching Clemson for 21 points as a freshman at Robert Morris, Mitchell considered the Tigers in high school before originally signing with Vanderbilt and Thomas was a former top 50 recruit who left Texas A&M after only a couple months.
“Several years ago, we did start holding a couple of scholarships for transfers,” Brownell said. “Where it started was we were losing out on some good players. We would get down to the final two and we lost a couple, but we noticed that some of them weren’t happy where they ended up going and wanted to come back. We felt like we needed to keep some scholarships available for guys like that.”
With NBA prospect Jaron Blossomgame returning for his senior year, forward Donte Grantham seemingly poised for a breakout season and a few key transfers set to fill in the holes in the roster, Clemson appeared capable of making the NCAA tournament last season. The Tigers instead finished a pedestrian 17-16 overall and 6-12 in the ACC as chemistry issues and late defensive lapses contributed to close loss after close loss.
Even though Radakovich signed Brownell to a contract extension through 2021 last April, the new deal substantially reduced the coach’s buyout, making it much less expensive for Clemson to make a change in the future. Brownell also parted ways with close friend and longtime assistant Mike Winiecki to make room for big man coach Antonio Reynolds Dean on staff.
In return, Radakovich promised Brownell a few concessions he had been seeking. Clemson basketball gained more frequent access to psychologist Milt Lowder, who previously worked mostly with the football program. Radakovich also signed off on the hire of former Clemson standout Terrell McIntyre as a player development coach.
“We had to put some things together from a resource standpoint to allow him to compete,” Radakovich said. “And he’s done it. He has done a fantastic job, and I’m so happy for him.”
A vastly improved defense buoyed by superior team chemistry has been the biggest reason Clemson has been successful this season. The Tigers held Auburn to anemic 25.8 percent shooting on Sunday night by taking away their transition game, walling off the paint and forcing them to shoot mostly contested jump shots.
Grantham’s season-ending ACL tear in late January robbed Clemson of its second-leading scorer, but the Tigers rallied around one-another and found ways to adjust. Reed, Mitchell and fellow guard Gabe DeVoe lead what is now largely a perimeter-based attack.
“When Donte got hurt, that was challenging because we were playing great basketball,” Brownell said. “We had to make some adjustments, and it makes you do a few new things. But at the same time, our guys never really wavered.”
One of the biggest reasons many questioned Radakovich’s decision to give Brownell another year last spring was because it appeared Clemson was just delaying the inevitable. How much better could the Tigers possibly get without Blossomgame, their leading scorer and rebounder the previous two seasons?
Turns out, a lot better. DeVoe and Reed have blossomed as perimeter scorers, Thomas has come closer to fulfilling his potential as an interior scorer and rim protector and transfers Mark Donnal (Michigan) and David Skara (Valparaiso) have added depth off the bench.
“There were some challenging times last spring, but I had a lot of confidence in our team,” Brownell said. “I just felt like our team was going to be really good this year. I knew our talent level. I thought the experience that guys like Marcquise and Elijah and Shelton got last year in our league was really good, and I knew they would elevate their play.”
Now instead of looking for another job this spring, Brownell could be in line for a raise and a contract extension.
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