COLUMBIA - Clemson exceeded all expectations with its run to the Sweet 16. The Tigers won't have the luxury of surprise next year.
Clemson was voted 13th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference last October with many wondering if this would be the last of coach Brad Brownell. He was entering his eighth season running the team, with just one NCAA appearance - in 2011.
Instead, the Tigers rolled to a 25-10 record, including a startling 31-point victory over Southeastern Conference champion Auburn in the round of 32. The run for fifth-seeded Clemson ended Friday night with an 80-76 loss to top-seeded Kansas in the Midwest Regional.
"It's just been an unbelievable pleasure to coach these guys," Brownell said after the defeat. "They've been tremendous all season."
Clemson tied a team record for season wins and won 11 ACC games in a season for the first time. The Tigers won't fly under the radar next year. The bulk of this year's group is back - leading scorer Marquise Reed, point guard Shelton Mitchell and forward Elijah Thomas, all double-digit scorers.
Clemson will say goodbye to two seniors in shooter Gabe DeVoe and forward Donte Grantham, whose leadership Brownell often credited for holding the Tigers together when things got rough.
Grantham was averaging 14 points a game when he tore knee ligaments late in a win over Notre Dame in January and missed the last 16 games. But Grantham, his knee in a brace, was on the bench each game, urging his teammates.
DeVoe, who entered Clemson four seasons ago with a high-school reputation as a big-time scorer, finally lived up to that his senior year. He closed his career with 31 points against the Jayhawks, the most points for a Clemson player in an NCAA game.
Also gone is one-year Michigan grad transfer Mark Donnal, who provided critical depth on a tem lacking height.
Next year, Reed and Mitchell should give the Tigers one of the ACC's strongest, most experienced backcourts.
Reed, a Robert Morris transfer, looked comfortable in his second season with the Tigers and became the team's go-to player. Mitchell, who transferred from Vanderbilt, also looked very much at home. He was Clemson's leader at the foul line, often thwarting comebacks with his 85 percent shooting.
Thomas, the 6-foot-9 Texas A&M transfer, still has problems with early fouls and being assertive under the basket. Still, he posted nine of his 11 career double-doubles this season and will look to take another step forward this fall.
The most promising breakout player next season might be 6-7 Aamir Simms, who averaged 15 minutes this season and has combined the power to slash to the basket with good instincts and touch on his shot.
Clemson was in the running for No. 2 national recruit Zion Williamson, a likely one-and-done forward picked Duke. The Tigers are expected to add a notable recruit in 6-11 Trey Jamison of Hoover, Alabama.
And there will be no doubt about Brownell. He and athletic director Dan Radakovich will work out an extension past his current deal that runs through 2021. Radakovich wants Brownell back and the 49-year-old coach wants to return.
Brownell was told last year that progress had to be made, especially with Clemson's recent, $63.5 million renovation of Littlejohn Coliseum that debuted before the 2016-17 season.
"I knew I needed to win this year," Brownell said. "That's OK. This is high-level basketball."
A level the Tigers reached this season.
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