This might not be the Sweet 16 we all expected, but the ACC is still quite well represented with four teams left in the field after a wild opening weekend to the NCAA Tournament. But with Virginia and North Carolina each gone early, we’ll see just how many can make it to the Final Four. Each week we take a look at the most interesting and important happenings around the league that made college hoops a national phenomenon.
TIGER TALES: Sometimes things just work out.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell entered the season on such a hot seat it was nearly a foregone conclusion this would be his last season. In fact, Brownell was all but fired last season until the Tigers’ top target for the job, then VCU coach Will Wade decided to take the LSU job instead. Clemson more or less decided to put the search off for a year while the Tigers entered the season with low expectations, picked to finish 13th in the ACC.
Now nobody is talking hot seat. Brownell is practically sitting on ice cubes after guiding the Tigers to a tie for third place in the conference and the Sweet 16, where Clemson will face Kansas on Friday.
Several early coach of the year awards have gone to Virginia’s Tony Bennett, who took the Cavaliers from unranked in the preseason to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But with UVA’s shocking first-round exit and Clemson’s run, don’t be surprised if Brownell takes home some of the awards still waiting to be handed out.
Not only did the Tigers exceed expectations, including a 31-point massacre of fourth-seeded Auburn in the Round of 32, they did it without their best player, Donte Grantham, who missed the second half of the season with injury.
In his absence, the Tigers have found an undeniable senior leader in guard Gabe Devoe. Devoe is averaging 22 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and will be a key for the Tigers as they get ready to face the Jayhawks backcourt featuring Devonte Graham and Malik Newman.
OMAHA STYLE: Speaking of the Jayhawks, Kansas is the team that potentially stands in the way for three of the four ACC teams remaining. Clemson, Syracuse and Duke are all in the Midwest Region with the Tigers meeting Kansas in the Sweet 16 round while Duke and Syracuse square off in the other game.
Anything can happen, but there are a few things going in Kansas’ favor, including what will likely be a pro-Jayhawks crowd in Omaha. KU coach Bill Self has also been quite successful against the ACC. Kansas already beat Syracuse earlier this season in Miami, running Self’s record at Kansas against the ACC to 12-2.
In fact, the Big 12, which also has four teams left in the tournament, has done quite well against the ACC as a whole. The Big 12 is 11-2 against the ACC over the past two seasons, including victories against Duke, Virginia, Syracuse and Florida State in that span.
LEONARD’S TIME?: Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton has led the Seminoles for 16 seasons and has spent 31 years as a college basketball head coach. This marks his third trip to the Sweet 16, but Hamilton, 69, has never made it to the Elite Eight.
The Seminoles have Gonzaga and then either Michigan or Texas A&M standing in their way of what could be a legacy securing trip to the Final Four for the veteran coach. Hamilton, who got the head coaching job at Oklahoma State at the young age of 37, developed a reputation early on as a recruiter who wasn’t much of a tactician.
Michael Jordan’s strange, failed decision to make Hamilton coach of the Washington Wizards for a year didn’t help perception. But Hamilton has certainly grown as a coach over the decades, and in separate stints he’s kept both Miami and Florida State competitive in tough basketball conferences, and mostly done it without a lot of blue chip recruits.
If you’re looking for a team left in the field to root for, perhaps you might for a man who in the mid-80s, along with John Thompson and others, helped break ground as an African American head coach in a major conference to get the Final Four appearance that just might put him in the Naismith Hall of Fame discussion.