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Clemson Virginia Tech Basketball

Clemson All-ACC guard Marcquise Reed (2) looks for room against Virginia Tech guard Wabissa Bede during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Blacksburg, Va. This week, Reed (a junior from Landover, Maryland) was named to the Associated Press All-ACC Second Team for this season.

CLEMSON — It was about a year ago that the folks close to the Clemson men’s basketball program were wondering about the future of head coach Brad Brownell after the Tigers missed out on the NCAA tournament for a seventh consecutive season.

It was hard times and the disappointment was real.

Even after Brownell was retained, many around the country saw his season-ending meeting with athletic director Dan Radakovich as more of an ultimatum, rather than a vote of confidence. Similar to what happened with former Tigers head baseball coach Jack Leggett, Radakovich met with Brownell and together they outlined a series of things that Brownell needed to do to keep his job.

Some of those things were external, like firing an assistant coach, and some internal, like hiring a sports psychologist.

But, even with a new plan in place, few could have foreseen the turnaround the Tigers have experienced this season — finishing fourth in the ACC (after being picked 13th in the preseason), securing an NCAA Tournament berth, earning a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. Add to that Brownell finishing second in ACC Coach of the Year voting and being named a semifinalist for the Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year, and the road to get here might seem like a distant memory.

But, all of the turmoil, struggles and hurdles the Tigers have been through in the last year have made this year’s tournament season that much more special.

Many fans thought the season might as well have finished in late January, when Tigers' second-leading scorer Donte Grantham tore his ACL, effectively ending his college career while averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

But the Clemson team regrouped and got back to building, winning 6 of the next 11 games to this point.

“This is going to be a very rewarding NCAA Tournament trip, certainly for me; because it’s been a few years since we’ve been,” Brownell said this week. “We’re the guys that for 20 months weren’t in our own building, played a year in Greenville. Tried to recruit; you had no building to recruit to. You bring kids on campus and you can’t really show them some of the things with basketball.

"I think the job, at times, was harder than people realized. And so now, a couple of years later for us to be where we are, certainly that part of it is rewarding for sure.”

For the Tigers, their play during the regular season means that they will not be sweating on Selection Sunday. There will be no need to take part in any politicking, similar to that done by Alabama football coach Nick Saban last year for the College Football Playoff.

Instead, they will simply be waiting to learn where they will be traveling and who they will be playing when the tournament opens near the end of next week.

“We’ve known for a while that we are an NCAA Tournament team and we earned that,” Brownell said. “Our play in non-conference (games) was really good. We really didn’t have any bad outings, but we had a lot of performances that were high-level. That set us up where if we had some success in our league we could be in that position, and we did.

“We got off to a great start and it’s been nice to play the last week-and-a-half without the stress that probably 25 other teams are under right now.”

But before the Tigers embark on their first trip to the Big Dance in seven years, there is still work to be done in the ACC — where the Tigers are still searching for their first conference tournament title in school history.

By virtue of their stellar play in the league this season, the Tigers earned the coveted double-bye — meaning they did not have to play in the first two days of the tournament — and will not play until Thursday at 2 p.m. (ESPN/ ACC Network).

“There are things we need to get better at if we want to win (this postseason),” Brownell said. “The levels of competition that we are getting ready to play in these next two tournaments are going to be high, and we have some areas that we need to improve.”

The No. 4 seed Tigers take on No.12 seed Boston College in the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament. The winner of the game will take on the winner of No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 9 Louisville.

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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