CLEMSON - The words "not important" start, at least jumbling three of the first four letters, spelling out NIT.
Results back up the perception: those who prosper in the National Invitation Tournament are those who care to prosper. There's been five upsets in terms of seeding through the first 18 games in this bracket, including St. John's going down to Robert Morris, excusing the top seed in Clemson's quarter from contention.
The last time Clemson participated in the NIT, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the 2007 semifinals. But in the six completed tournaments since, only five out of 24 top seeds made their way to New York City.
That's why great opportunity beckons for No. 3 Clemson (21-12) and No. 2 Illinois (20-14), battling Sunday at 11 a.m. at Littlejohn Coliseum on ESPN for a spot in the quarterfinals. If the Tigers prevail, they'll host No. 5 seed Belmont on Tuesday evening, with the winner headed to Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Recovered from a disappointing ACC tournament exit against Duke, Clemson's not ready to clean out the locker room.
"As a unit, we're much closer. I feel like we collectively play together as a team," junior forward K.J. McDaniels said. "It's definitely helped us in the long run, because we won a lot of games people thought we weren't going to win. It shows our maturity level, and it's brought us this far."
The only Tiger who had played in a postseason before last week, junior guard Damarcus Harrison, drew from his experiences with BYU in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
"That instilled in me to take it one game at a time, be focused on the task at hand," Harrison said. "We can't overlook anybody, can't look at being in New York. If we want to advance, we've got to take every game serious."
Clemson was picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the ACC preseason media poll; Illinois, picked eighth in the Big Ten, stayed truer to form. The Fighting Illini are 3-1 all-time against the Tigers, most recently with a 76-74 win in the 2009 ACC-Big Ten Challenge at Littlejohn.
"That's what I like about the postseason tournaments. You just go out and play," Harrison said. "Anything happens in March; that's why it's so fun."
Dreaming of the Big Apple? It's easier said than done for young players who haven't been to the basketball mecca. But it's potentially only 80 minutes of basketball away.
"The opportunity's getting closer," McDaniels said, "so we have to go out there and grind it out."
McDaniels' shoulder is feeling better, but Clemson expects to be without starting forward Jaron Blossomgame, who twisted his leg in Tuesday's NIT-opening victory over Georgia State.
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