Clemson is heading to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997 after taking down Auburn 84–53 last Sunday in their second-round matchup. They will join fellow ACC teams Duke and Syracuse, as well as the No. 1 seed, Kansas, in the Midwest Region to battle for a place in the Final Four. Was it excellent guard play? A classic underdog mentality? Or team chemistry? Yes. Yes. And yes.
Big Little Guys
When talking about Clemson and the importance of guard play the day before the game, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said, “Their three guards are as good as any three guards in this tournament, period.”
Unfortunately for the coach, Clemson’s backcourt showed just how right Pearl was in his praise. Gabe DeVoe, Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell combined for 48 of Clemson’s 84 points, in addition to piling up 18 rebounds and 14 assists. Gabe DeVoe, who led the Tigers with a game-high 22 points, appreciated that Clemson made a big statement with the win. “[We did it by] just going out and competing for 40 minutes. Felt like we didn’t let up at all. I think in the first half, we had 15 stops in a row. Going out and sticking to the game plan and competing defensively on every possession.”
And compete they did. The blowout was Clemson’s best defensive effort against any opponent this season, as Auburn was limited to shooting 25.8% (17-for-66) from the field.
Always the Underdog
Clemson was picked to finish 13th of the 15 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference by the preseason experts. They used those low expectations as motivation and finished fourth in the conference, despite losing their best player and senior leader, Donte Grantham, who went down with a torn ACL in January. He has continued to be a positive force off the court and was no doubt part of their recent NCAA Tournament success. Grantham said, “I feel like I am a coach now. I encourage our team and just want them to play hard.”
Even head coach Brad Brownell is playing the role of underdog, as he is heading to his first Sweet 16 appearance after coaching for 16 years. He had gone six years at Clemson without making the tournament, and many said the pressure was on for him to reach the big dance.
Despite the game being a matchup of No. 4 seed against a No. 5 seed, Auburn was the clear favorite coming into the game, having dominated the SEC as its regular season champs.
But not only did Clemson win, the Tigers recorded their biggest win in NCAA tournament history in one of the most lopsided NCAA contests ever played. Everything went right for Clemson, and at one point in the second half their lead grew to 41 points, leaving the SEC champs in a state of shock. It was a truly stunning take down of a well-respected team with a great record.
Clemson’s team chemistry is truly impressive. There are few teams that exhibit that much enthusiasm, love for the game, and respect for each other on and off the court. It may have taken Brownell a few years to build it, but the culture he created is paying dividends.
“I think [our chemistry] is a big reason why we are here,” said junior forward David Skara. “We are a great group of guys that love to play with each other and it shows on the court.”
Said Brownell, “The personality of our team is our guys are really loose, they like each other, and I think that friendship is where our real unity comes from. We want our guys to have fun. We work extremely hard, we prepare, we practice hard. But we want to enjoy what we're doing.
He added, “When you're smiling, laughing having fun with your friends, that's when you're going to play your best.”
The culture of commitment to team and joy for the game was on display Sunday, and the Clemson players fed off each other in dominating Auburn. They believe their underdog days are behind them, and that team chemistry and great guard play will now carry them to the Final Four.
Clemson will face No. 1 seed Kansas on CBS at 7:07 p.m. Friday night.