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Clemson on the bubble? Tigers' NCAA Tournament chances slim, not impossible

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CLEMSON — Aamir Simms hit the deck and cradled the ball, hugging it to his chest. A set of hands from above tugged and tugged, but Simms refused to let go. It was, Simms ensured, Clemson's ball. Not Louisville's. 

Finally a whistle blew. The first half of what would turn into a stunning 77-62 win for the Tigers over then-No. 5 Louisville on Saturday was nearing a close. Coach Brad Brownell stomped onto the court and embraced Simms, who had withstood the Cardinals' best blows and risen from the floor. 

So had Clemson.

The Tigers' season has been the picture of inconsistency: There have been injuries and surprise standouts, head-scratching defeats and historic, program-shaping victories.

The latest dose of heady histrionics was served Saturday at Littlejohn Coliseum, where Clemson managed to knock off a top-five program for the second time this campaign — the first time the Tigers have done so since the 1979-80 season.

For as much as players and coaches preach the importance of taking things 'one game a time,' there is no doubt this team, and its fan base, craves an NCAA Tournament berth.

For stretches of time this season, including as recently as last week, when the team found itself in the throes of a three-game skid, earning such a bid seemed unlikely. But the Tigers, in beating Pittsburgh on the road Feb. 12 and knocking off Louisville in front of a rabid home crowd on Saturday, have played themselves back onto some bracketologists' bubbles. 

"They still have life," said bracketwag.com and USA Today's Shelby Mast. "They still have a lot of work to do. And they need help from others teams above them to take some losses."

ACC's four NCAA teams

Conventional wisdom has four ACC teams qualifying for the tournament — most likely Duke, Louisville, Florida State and Virginia. It has been a weak season for the league, especially compared to last season, when Virginia, Duke and North Carolina earned three of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds.

Brownell on Saturday made the argument that the conference's lower-tier teams are stronger than in years past, but that line of thinking alone is unlikely to propel Clemson (13-12, 7-8 ACC) into March Madness.

The Tigers will need to keep winning. Their margin for error is small, Mast said, but there are chances to polish the resume. 

"There's a lot of bubble teams that are pretty much out of opportunities. Despite what their record may be, there's just not enough quality games left on their resume," Mast said.

Clemson, meanwhile, returns to action Saturday at Boston College (13-13, 7-8), the team directly below Brownell's in the conference standings. From there, the Tigers play Georgia Tech on the road (Feb. 25), No. 8 Florida State at home (Feb. 29), Virginia Tech on the road (March 4) and Georgia Tech at home (March 6).

"If they're that good, they should win probably four of those games," Mast said. "If they can win all five, they will be in the discussion on selection Sunday."

The biggest opportunity during that stretch for Clemson, obviously, is the game against the Seminoles, who throttled the Tigers, 72-53, in Tallahassee, Fla., on Dec. 8.

A win over Florida State would give Clemson three top-10 wins on the season, with the 79-72 upset over then-No. 2 Duke on Jan. 14 being the first. 

Even if the Tigers fall short then, they could still have a chance, Mast said, if they win their other four regular-season games and have a strong showing in the ACC Tournament; that would mean beating Duke, Louisville or Florida State in the tournament.

"They have been one of my teams the last couple weeks that I have told people, 'Keep an eye on them,'" Mast said. "They're not that bad of a team."

But they are far from an exceptional team. Early-season home losses to Virginia Tech (Nov. 5) and Miami (Dec. 31) and a defeat at Wake Forest (Feb. 1) stick out to Mast: All three teams register lower than No. 72 Clemson in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, with the Hokies checking in at No. 92, the Hurricanes at No. 104 and the Demon Deacons at No. 97.

Part of the team's uneven performance, Brownell said, can be attributed to inexperience.

"Our players are continuing to get better. (Guard) John Newman really didn't play a lot last year. Obviously, our freshman, this is their first year dealing with this. They're good players, but they're not physically — they're not like a (Louisville guard) David Johnson, who can physically overpower you as a freshman," Brownell said. "Our guys have to make the right decision."

The Tigers' decision-making was on point Saturday. They led 31-14 at halftime, with some players so caught up in the crowd's emotion they asked Brownell to give them time to gather their breath on the bench. And Newman, who averaged just 12 minutes per game last season, scored a career-high 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

"(It was) just one of those games where John Newman plays at another level and gives us that extra guy that we need making shots," Brownell said. "We're getting a bunch of different guys that are having good games, and when we get three or four of them on the same day, offensively, it gives our team a chance to play with most teams in the league."

'Brutal league'

That much was clear last Saturday. The Tigers scored on their first five possessions and never looked back, holding Louisville to its lowest-scoring half of the season over the first 20 minutes.

In addition to Newman's big performance, graduate guard Tevin Mack scored 14 points and Simms scored 13 points to go along with six assists, four rebounds and a steal. The Tigers entered the contest 10th in the ACC in 3-point shooting, but they shot 9-of-23 from long range against the Cardinals. That, combined with tough defense against a slumping Louisville team and its slumping star (Jordan Nwora scored just five points) put Brownell's team over the edge. 

The Tigers might not have a star player in the mold of some of their rivals, but Simms has become the team's face this season. As the halftime buzzer sounded, the junior untucked his jersey and parked himself on the side of the court, offering high-fives to all of his teammates and coaches before retreating to the locker room.

"Aamir is probably who we play through the most," Brownell said. "He's not only scoring, he's passing it. We're using him to facilitate our offense."

Simms often leverages his ability to score inside into passes to his teammates for open looks. That dynamic was absent Feb. 9 against Notre Dame, which Simms missed with the flu. Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey credited the Tigers' toughness afterwards, but Clemson fell, 61-57, leaving what could've been a resume-boosting win on the table. 

"They are a great defensive team," Brey said. "They just probably weren't going to have as much offense tonight without Simms, let's be honest. But nobody feels sorry for anybody in this league. It's a brutal league."

Brownell echoed that sentiment after the Louisville game. Parity might be fun for college basketball fans, but it's not often a favorable trait for the selection committee. 

Clemson made the tournament in 2010-11, Brownell's first season, then again in 2017-18, going all the way to the Sweet 16. The fate of this season's team remains unclear.

"You don't know night in and night out which team is going to show up," Mast said. "If it's the team that beat Duke and Louisville, then they can do some damage in the tournament. But if it's the team that showed up against Virginia Tech and Miami, then they're going to be watching on TV."

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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