Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Clemson was finishing its regular season with a sour 65-62 home loss to Georgia Tech last week when Tigers basketball radio network analyst Tim Bourret sighed along with most of the school’s basketball fans.

“I hate to say it,” Bourret said, “but this was a microcosm of the season.”

Indeed, a Brad Brownell-led team that was picked to finish 11th in the ACC’s official preseason poll opened the Georgia Tech game missing its first nine shots. Clemson was down by 11 points at halftime.

But the Tigers — the team that finally snapped Clemson’s Chapel Hill losing streak this season and beat three ACC teams currently in the top 10 of the NCAA’s NET rankings (Duke, Louisville and Florida State) — staged a spectacular comeback against the Yellow Jackets to take a nine-point lead with 5:15 remaining.

Only to miss the last eight 3-point attempts and lose on Senior Night.

Clemson finished the season 16-15 overall with coronavirus concerns causing cancellation of its ACC Tournament quarterfinal game against top-seeded Florida State on Thursday. The Tigers opened ACC Tournament play in Greensboro, N.C., on Wednesday with a victory over Miami.

I hate to say it, but the 2019-2020 season is a microcosm of Brad Brownell’s 10-year tenure at Clemson.

Both downtrodden and promising, fun highs and long lows.

All adding up to two NCAA Tournament appearances in a decade. One of those was as a No. 12 seed with an Oliver Purnell-recruited team in Brownell’s first season, 2011.

And yet, the tease (once again) …

Clemson might be good next year.

If everyone eligible returns.

Plus a solid grad transfer addition or two.

And a not necessarily spectacular contribution from 6-10 signee P.J. Hall.

The thing to do with Brownell is bring him back with perhaps a technical contract extension but an actual buyout reduction (the buyout figure is $4,255,000 as of April 1 according to USA Today’s annual survey of college basketball salaries).

The “hate to say it” message, specifically articulated or not: Make the NCAA Tournament in 2021 or else (barring an acceptable excuse such as a rash of injuries).

Barnes and Purnell

As sure as there are more rodeo arenas than major men’s basketball trophies in Pickens County, other Clemson basketball coaches have struggled.

The most successful, Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell, bolted when they realized an orange ceiling wasn’t as good as another opportunity (Texas and DePaul, respectively).

But if the myth that it’s impossible to do consistently well in basketball at Clemson is true, it’s certainly possible to do better than Brownell’s one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last nine years.

Aside from the dry Larry Shyatt years of 1999-2003, there hasn’t been a rough stretch like that since Bill Foster took over as head coach for the 1975-1976 season.

Foster went to one NCAA Tournament in nine seasons (and made the Elite Eight).

Cliff Ellis made three in 10 seasons (though Clemson’s two Big Dance wins in 1990 were ordered vacated by the NCAA Committee on Infractions).

Rick Barnes made three NCAA Tournaments in four tries from 1995-1998.

After Shyatt’s 0-for-5, Purnell made three NCAA Tournaments in a row from 2008-2010 before handing off to Brownell.

The roster, the fans

How about that Aamir Simms, the versatile junior forward who made the All-ACC third team?

Freshmen Al-Amir Dawes, Chase Hunter and Alex Hemenway were among Clemson’s nine leading contributors.

Tevin Mack is the only senior among the top five scorers.

Transfer sophomore Nick Honor is already in the fold, and averaged 15.3 points per game with 32 starts at Fordham.

Interest in all this, however, was a problem that must be carefully considered when considering Brownell’s future. Clemson’s home attendance average has dropped each of the two years since the 2018 Sweet Sixteen season:

  • 7,743 in 2018
  • 7,015 in 2019
  • 6,832 in 2020

But next year, it’s up to Roy Williams’ last-place Tar Heels to get even with Clemson.

And back to Tim Bourret who, along with his basketball radio duties, served as the school’s football sports publicist and greatest ambassador for 40 years.

“First time since 1949-50 Clemson basketball ends year with a victory” he tweeted Thursday just after the ACC pulled the Tigers and Seminoles off the floor at the ACC Tournament.

So Brownell has that going for him into the 2020-2021 season.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff