COLUMBIA — The residue from Clemson’s burst NCAA Tournament bubble drowned South Carolina’s postseason hopes.
The Tigers will settle for the NIT this year after losing their shot at the NCAA Tournament, while the Gamecocks, hoping for an NIT bid with a 16-16 record, were denied for a second straight season. USC has followed the program’s greatest triumph, the 2017 Final Four, with two years without a postseason berth.
Clemson (19-13) was given a second seed and will host Wright State at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPNU. Furman (25-7), which had a sliver of a chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament berth, was awarded an NIT third seed and will host Wichita State at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Tigers coach Brad Brownell was head coach at Wright State before coming to Clemson. The Paladins will play Wichita State and coach Gregg Marshall, a Greenwood native who was an assistant at College of Charleston and head coach at Winthrop.
The Tigers entered the ACC Tournament projected to be one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament, but with prognosticators calling their game with N.C. State a “knockout round,” Clemson lost by a point. A whistle that set up the Wolfpack’s game-winning free throw was criticized, as was the Tigers squandering a 16-point halftime lead and only scoring 16 points in the second half.
“Proud of the way our guys fought and really disappointed with the way the game ended,” Brownell said. “Too much at stake for things to end like that.”
It will be the third NIT and fifth postseason berth in nine years under Brownell, but this season was disappointing. After advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 a year ago and returning four starters among six seniors, the expectation was a repeat NCAA Tournament appearance.
While Clemson went 9-9 in the ACC, it lost six games by two points or less. The lone win that stood out to the NCAA Tournament selection committee was over a Virginia Tech team missing its best player that night.
The Gamecocks faced a similar situation as last year. In 2018, USC was left out of the NIT with a 17-16 record mostly due to NIT regulations.
The tournament’s rules state that any regular-season champion that does not win its conference tournament will get an automatic spot in the NIT. It’s a rule rewarding the one-bid mid-major leagues, where there are often upsets in the league tournament.
Last year, 12 teams were given NIT spots by that rule. This year, there were 10. Then there were leagues such as the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Pac-12 and West Coast that had regular-season champions that were going to be at-large NCAA Tournament teams even if they lost in their conference tournaments.
VCU, Nevada, Washington and Gonzaga did lose in those tournaments, meaning the NCAAs had to take them alongside the four tournament champions (Rhode Island, Utah State, Oregon, St. Mary’s). Ohio Valley champion Belmont was also chosen for the NCAAs despite losing to Murray State in the conference tournament.
Those pushed teams such as Clemson, N.C. State, Texas, Indiana and Alabama further off the NCAA bubble but made them locks for the NIT, which weakened USC’s chances.
“We're the fourth-place team in this league. You mean to tell me there's that big a differential with who we are as a team and those guys that are national championship-good?,” coach Frank Martin said after the SEC Tournament loss. “We're right there. We just didn't score enough.”
USC posted just the sixth winning SEC season in its 28-year history in the league but was never able to overcome a 5-8 non-conference season. The Gamecocks lost to Stony Brook, Wyoming and Oklahoma State and didn’t beat any of the “name” opponents they scheduled, such as Clemson, Michigan or Virginia.
Martin rallied his team through near-crippling injuries to finish fourth in the league and became responsible for three of USC’s six winning SEC seasons. The third-winningest coach in school history is also just the third to ever string five consecutive non-losing seasons together, following Frank McGuire, who had winning seasons in the final 14 of his 16 seasons, and George Felton.
Yet while other teams with a similar amount of losses were on the NCAA bubble, they were able to equal bad losses with notable wins. USC won 11 SEC games and beat NCAA Tournament teams Auburn, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Florida but never had the really big win to plead its case.
The Gamecocks lost to Auburn in their only game of the SEC Tournament on Friday and headed home to wait. The NIT had only taken one .500 team in the last 12 years and while it chose a second and third this year in 16-16 Texas and Butler, USC didn’t have enough on its record to be the fourth.