COLUMBIA - After Clemson's best NCAA Tournament run in 21 years, Brad Brownell believes his team is ready to keep winning.
"I'd like to think that we learned some things this year that will help us going forward," the coach said Thursday.
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Some wondered if Brownell would ever reach this point at Clemson. The eighth-year coach had several tantalizing moments when it appeared the Tigers were ready to break through and remain among upper half of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Little-regarded KJ McDaniels became a high-flying first-team all-ACC member in 2014 and led the Tigers to 23 wins and the NIT semifinals. Two years later, Jaron Blossomgame was the breakout star when Clemson won 10 ACC games and had a stretch of four out of five wins against ranked opponents.
So when last season's team struggled to a 12th-place finish in the league, Brownell knew it was time for the Tigers to perform.
He challenged this year's seniors in Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham to step up their game and leadership in guiding a promising group of transfers in Marcquise Reed of Robert Morris, Shelton Mitchell of Vanderbilt and Elijah Thomas of Texas A&M. The results were a program-record 11 ACC wins and a first trip to the NCAA since 2011.
"I think Gabe and Donte took some motivation from our talk," Brownell said.
Things changed in midseason when Grantham, averaging 14 points, tore a knee ligament late in a win over Notre Dame on Jan. 20. Clemson played its final 16 games without Grantham.
Clemson's biggest moments came at the end. A fifth seed, the Tigers controlled things much of the way in defeating 12th-seeded New Mexico State in the NCAA opener before decimating Southeastern Conference champ Auburn 84-53 to reach their first Sweet 16 since 1997.
The bulk of that team returns, including the backcourt of leading scorer Reed and point guard Mitchell. The 6-foot-9 Thomas and 6-8 David Skara , another transfer from Valparaiso, should hold down things under the basket.
Reserves expected to play a bigger role include, 6-7 forward Aamir Simms, who showed range from the outside and an ability to rebound with the ACC's best.
Among Clemson's commitments for next year is 6-11 Trey Jemison of Hoover, Alabama, who will become the team's tallest player.
Brownell believes the team's increased commitment to basketball is starting to pay off. The school spent $63.5 million to renovate Littlejohn Coliseum, improving locker rooms, lounges and practice space in ways it had for several years with its football program. In time and with the right leadership in coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers won a national championship in football.
Brownell will soon meet with athletic director Dan Radakovich on a new contract that will tie him to Clemson beyond his current deal, which expires after the 2020-21 season.
"This is somewhere I'm happy at," Brownell said.
Brownell said next year's seniors in Reed, Mitchell and Thomas can take a page from the example set by DeVoe and Grantham.
"Every group is different," Brownell said. "But these guys saw and a lot and showed they wanted to get better after last year. There's no reason won think they can't do the same next season."
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