NEW YORK - Everyone else could have Selection Sunday a few weeks back. The Brownell household was home to Appreciation Sunday.
Only the most optimistic Clemson fan might have expected the orange Tiger Paw to appear during CBS' NCAA tournament selection show March 16. But Clemson coach Brad Brownell wanted to recognize Clemson for doing what few thought it could do, and that's play basketball beyond the ACC tournament.
When ESPNU aired the NIT tournament field and the Tigers were presented as expected, it wasn't like the house's foundation was tested.
"I still gathered my team together and we had an NIT party, really, to rally the spirits of our team, to educate our players a little bit on the significance of this tournament," Brownell said. "We weren't jumping around and going crazy like we would have if it had been an NCAA tournament.
"But we were clapping and certainly excited. We had a nice meal together and spent time together with some players' families, to let the guys know . it wasn't something to take lightly."
These days, college basketball's bluebloods look down their nose at the National Invitation Tournament. Ever since the media and marketing for March Madness expanded, the NIT has been akin to off-the-radar bowl games in Boise or Shreveport - a consolation prize, battling for less than the big prize.
Thing is, Brownell, 45, is the least-equipped of the four head coaches in New York City prepping for Tuesday night's semifinals to illustrate to his players just how meaningful the NIT used to be.
Southern Methodist's Larry Brown and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton have each coached in college since the 1970s, and Minnesota's Richard Pitino, 31, simply needs to dial up his famous dad, Rick, for a history lesson.
Brown is the rock star of this "other" final four, and not just because he's the most well-known of the participating players and coaches. He led the Knicks for one season in 2005-06, and he hails from Brooklyn.
"I look at this as a tremendous honor and privilege to be playing in this tournament," Brown said. "When I was growing up, the NIT was the best tournament. Playing in the Garden is exciting for my team because there's no better place to play."
SMU was the biggest snub from the NCAA draw - the Mustangs were ranked in the second-to-last AP and coaches polls, preceding the conference tournaments. ESPN analyst Fran Frascilla, one of Brown's close friends and fellow Brooklyn natives who now lives in Dallas near SMU, spoke to Brown's players about the opportunity.
"Fran talked about what the NIT meant, and I kind of talked a little bit about it," Brown said. "But (the players) aren't silly. They know the Garden and historically what that building means."
Before even Brown's time, the NIT champion was regarded as the national champion. After the NCAA tournament became king in the 1950s, the NIT remained just as relevant for a few decades.
"Before the NCAA tournament, people would turn down the NCAA tournament to go to the NIT," Pitino said. "So I know it's got great, great tradition."
Tradition is a nice touch, but so is rewarding roughly 60 college players from the southern or midwestern states with a trip to New York City. All of the top Tigers had never been to Madison Square Garden before their Monday morning shootaround.
"I think our kids are extremely excited and humbled," Brownell said. "We had half of them acting like Carmelo Anthony shooting jumpers in MSG today."
Point guard Rod Hall revealed a midseason conversation with forward K.J. McDaniels that, without mentioning the NIT, they talked about how cool it would be to play in the world's most famous basketball arena.
"It's kind of like a dream come true, that we talked about it and we actually get to play in the Garden," Hall said. "It'll be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so we'll make the best of it."
Said McDaniels, "I already knew it was the mecca of basketball just because the greats have played in there."
Clemson assistant Earl Grant reminded the Tigers this weekend of how few teams - the NCAA champ, the NIT champ, the CBI and CIT champs - are able to close their season with a victory.
"That's what we want to do," guard Damarcus Harrison said. "That really stuck with us, because we have a chance to end our season with a W, so we want to go all out and play our hardest in these next couple games."
No. 3 seed Clemson (23-12, 10-8 ACC) vs. No. 1 Southern Methodist (26-9, 12-6 AAC)
WHEN: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Madison Square Garden, New York City
TV/RADIO: ESPN2; CTSN
LINE: SMU by 3 points
NOTES: Both teams are coming off losing seasons when they only won five conference games. Clemson has improved its win total by 10, the second-greatest improvement ever for an ACC team . SMU, in its first year under Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown, went 5-11 in Conference USA in 2012-13, but moved to the newly-created American Athletic Conference and spent four weeks as a ranked program this year . Brown is already the only coach to own an NCAA title and an NBA title, and sits two victories away from his first NIT crown . Clemson and SMU each rank in KenPom.com's top 20 most efficient defenses in the country . Clemson junior K.J. McDaniels is 49 points away from breaking the school's single-season scoring record, currently shared by Bill Yarborough (1954-55) and Horace Grant (1986-87) with 651 points a piece.
Clemson's K.J. McDaniels prepares to dunk during the first half of their NCAA college basketball National Invitational Tournament game against Belmont at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C., on Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)×
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