UAB didn't belong, maybe Clemson does
March, 16, 2011
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com
DAYTON, Ohio -- Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was spotted wearing headphones on press row during the second half of Tuesday's Clemson-UAB game.
Perhaps Smith wanted to shield his ears from further howling about the NCAA tournament selection committee that he chaired this year. Those who had already shouted that UAB didn't belong in this year's field -- which includes virtually everybody outside of the committee -- had all their talking points accurately documented in a 70-52 loss to Clemson in the First Four.
Clemson players yelled "Let's get 'em from the jump!" as they huddled in the tunnel before the game. And it seemed just that easy as they rolled out to a 25-7 lead, then stayed ahead by double digits most of the game. Hopefully for his own well-being, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg couldn't find truTV on his satellite or cable provider.
The first-round game clearly and quickly exposed UAB as an impostor better suited for the NIT. Let's not forget, though, that Clemson came here with some gaps in its résumé as well. The only NCAA tournament teams the Tigers beat all year were Wofford and Florida State, at home.
"We definitely had some doubters," senior forward Jerai Grant said.
First-round asterisk or not, the fact remains that Clemson just won its first tournament game since 1997. And maybe that's not all because of the opponent.
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesFirst-year Clemson coach Brad Brownell's Tigers appeared to have everything clicking against UAB.
The Tigers ended their season strong, beating fellow bubble team Virginia Tech and then wiping out Boston College by 23 points in their first ACC tournament game. They led North Carolina by 10 at halftime before falling in overtime in the ACC semis.
This is a team that plays solid defense and knows where its strength lies -- inside the 3-point arc. Grant continued his senior renaissance with a career-high 22 points, while forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings combined for another 21 points. Clemson outscored UAB 40-12 in the paint.
"That was our game plan offensively," guard Tanner Smith said. "Our post guys did a great job of taking their time and controlling the paint."
This is also a team playing for a first-year head coach in Brad Brownell, who installed a new motion offense. It shouldn't be too surprising that things seem to be coming together at the end of the season.
"I think we're playing the best basketball we've played all season, and that's how it's supposed to be right here toward the end," guard Andre Young said.
The end might not have arrived yet. The Tigers have a favorable draw in Round 2 against East Regional No. 5 seed West Virginia. Like them, the Mountaineers are a defensive-minded team with versatile big guys that doesn't shoot well from the outside.
But as with all First Four winners, Clemson faces a difficult travel turnaround. Tuesday's game didn't end until after midnight, and the second-round game in Tampa loomed about 36 hours later Thursday afternoon. At least the Tigers should have worked any tournament nerves out of their system.
"We can't have the excuse of having to play [Tuesday]," Tanner Smith said. "We can ride momentum into a game like that. I'm sure West Virginia and teams that haven't played feel like the tournament hasn't really started yet. For us, we're in the tournament grind already."
It's a grind made easier by a questionable opponent in the first round. We can pile on UAB, but all the team did was get on the charter plane that the NCAA provided. Head coach Mike Davis described it as "heartbreaking" when his players heard all the criticism immediately following their selection. And with star senior guard Aaron Johnson breaking his leg in the final minutes and limping out of University of Dayton Arena on crutches, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for the Blazers.
As for the selection committee, that's another story. Gene Smith might want to have those headphones ready again for Wednesday night. That's when VCU plays.