CLEMSON - March Madness wasn't built on 20-point blowouts.
The fans want dramatic nail-biters, buzzer-beaters and clutch free throws. "Onions" (courtesy of Bill Raftery) and overtimes.
The NCAA tournament is one week away, but conference tournaments serve up a tasty appetizer, especially when familiar foes duke it out.
Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory pointed to the ACC's wild regular-season finish last weekend.
"These games go down to the last eight minutes. Almost all these games do," Gregory said. "You need to make those winning plays, those plays based on toughness and attention to detail."
Gregory knows. His team lost twice to Clemson this year, by a total of eight points. And Georgia Tech, 0-9 vs. Clemson since March 2010, gets one more crack at the Tigers Thursday at 9 p.m. in the ACC tournament second round in Greensboro, N.C.
The Tigers have grown accustomed to close games - nine of Clemson's last 11 games were decided by single-digit margins, with a respectable 5-4 mark (4-2 in regulation, 1-2 in overtime.)
"We've finished a bunch of these types of games all year," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "We've had to make free throws and made them, we've had to get a stop and gotten them, had to get the inbounds and gotten it, had to get it in through the trap. We've done that half a dozen times this year successfully in one way or another."
That's probably why on Sunday, the day after Clemson coughed up a five-point lead with 13 seconds remaining and eventually lost to Pittsburgh in overtime, Brownell wouldn't let his team sulk. The Tigers (19-11, 10-8 ACC) finished nine spots better in the league standings than projected in the preseason.
"We had a good day together and really celebrated a very successful regular season," Brownell said. "When you think back to what this team has accomplished, we've been able to do a lot more than several teams in this league, and we weren't picked to do that.
"To just look at the last 15 seconds of one game rather than the totality of what we did during the conference season would be a mistake."
Brownell made an intriguing admission Saturday after Clemson's regular-season finale: the loss would sting him for far longer than his players.
Truth be told, forwards K.J. McDaniels and Jaron Blossomgame were hardly heartbroken in the aftermath, instead sounding more eager to see what can unfold as the No. 6 seed in the ACC tournament.
"We're just going to regroup, keep the same mentality, keep fighting, and we'll be ready for next Thursday," said McDaniels, voted to the media's all-ACC first team Monday and selected the coaches' ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
"There were definitely a lot of positives out of these past few games," added Blossomgame. "We've got an opportunity to do something great next week in the ACC tournament."
When the ACC bracket was settled, there was some prospective good news. Clemson owned a 4-0 record against the three foes in its quarter. The Tigers swept No. 11 Georgia Tech, won at No. 14 Boston College and upset No. 3 Duke at home.
"I don't think it matters at all, in all honesty," Brownell countered. "A lot of those games were so long ago that teams change, and venues will be different. When they start the game, it's still going to be 0-0 and you've got to play well to win."
All across the country, there's been hierarchical unrest, with the exception of a few constants like Florida, Wichita State and Arizona. Twenty-five different schools have spent at least one week in the Associated Press poll's top 10.
Conference and national tournaments figure to thrive on the unpredictable, which in Greensboro will hold the added touch of three new teams in Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
"It seems to me in the many differences we've seen in the ACC and Big East," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, "there just seems to be more close games, across the board, decided down the stretch. That's remarkable."
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