CLEMSON — The No. 18 Clemson Tigers (21-7, 10-6 ACC) are on the verge of a historic season of basketball that few thought would be possible at the start of the season.
With the return of Shelton Mitchell to the Tigers’ lineup, after suffering a concussion in the loss to Florida State Feb. 14, the Tigers battled back from 11 points down Saturday against Georgia Tech to secure their 10th victory in the ACC.
Now the Tigers enter the final week of the regular season with a berth in the NCAA Tournament all but assured and the excitement surrounding the program at an all-time high.
"Coming off a win against Georgia Tech on Saturday - -didn't think we played particularly well at times, but really pleased with the way our guys battled from 11 down in the second half and made some big-time plays down the stretch,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “I was really good to have Shelton Mitchell back. I thought he was good in the game and helped us a good bit. I thought that Georgia Tech played hard, played well and we were probably fortunate to win.
"We're in the last week of the regular season with 10 wins and a lot to play for, so exciting time of year and looking forward to what's next."
But the NCAA Tournament, while it has been a while for the Tigers, is something with which they are familiar. However, there is one bit of history that has eluded the Tigers.
Never before has a Clemson team won more than 10 conference games in a given year — meaning a win Wednesday (9 p.m., ESPNU) against Florida State (19-9, 8-8 ACC) would be seen as a historic event that, for many, would validate what Brownell has accomplished in his tenure.
"I think it would be significant -- I really do,” Brownell said. “Obviously, this league is a monster every year, so you get to 10 with a week to go and you got a chance to still play for a double-bye, a chance to break a school-record with 11 ACC regular season wins. Yeah, it'd be a huge accomplishment for our guys.”
Brownell went so far as to embrace the fact that the Tigers are chasing history. During his Monday morning team meeting, he spoke with the team about the opportunity that is in front of them this week.
“I do think that it has significance because it hasn't been done in our school,” Brownell said. “I know we haven't had 18 league games forever, but this league is very demanding. So for our guys to have an opportunity to do that is a significant accomplishment."
The Tigers enter the final week of the regular season projected as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament by CBS Sports, and No. 5 seed by ESPN.
A victory over the upstart Seminoles in the home finale would be another notch on the Tigers’ resume, further solidifying their standings.
But if the Tigers are going to emerge victorious they will need to clean up the mistakes that led to a disastrous loss 14 days ago. On Valentine’s night, the Tigers blew an 18-point lead at Florida State and ultimately lost the game in overtime.
“We have to take care of the ball better. We got a little sped up and made a few bad decisions at inopportune times, and they were able to convert those into points in transition,” Brownell said. “Then obviously, you've got to rebound against them. Their big and strong and athletic. They send a bunch of guys to the glass. So, physically we've got to be ready to compete. So taking care of the ball, I think physically taking care of the ball, defending and rebounding are always huge when you play those guys."
Clemson is tied for fourth in the ACC with the top four teams receiving the coveted double-by in the ACC Tournament, with N.C. State.
N. C. State currently holds the tiebreaker over the Tigers. That means if the Tigers are victorious in their last two games (Florida State and Saturday at Syracuse), they would still need N.C. State to lose one of their final two games (at Georgia Tech and against Louisville).
Making the last two games even more critical for the Tigers is the fact that if they were to lose both of their last two games, they could fall all the way to ninth in the ACC.