Seasons are ending, or at the very least, dreams of the NCAA tournament are ending for schools such as Georgetown and Clemson.
The Hoyas and Tigers are joining the hundreds of teams being eliminated from conference tournaments in these first two weeks of March. While 36 teams will make the NCAA field after failing to win a conference tournament, 283 will not. As these seasons end — and before Selection Sunday arrives — it’s a good time to take stock of various coaching situations.
Some — Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Memphis — are clear cut but have not yet been met with final decisions from athletic directors or athletic departments. Others — such as Eddie Jordan of Rutgers and Jim Crews of Saint Louis — have already been dealt with. Coaches have been sent packing after being eliminated from a conference tournament.
Yet, the coaching landscape in college basketball is vast enough that one can’t apply a one-size-fits-all mentality to coaches across the spectrum. Situations are too different. The histories of programs are too particular. A given view or approach might fit one school and one coach at one point in time, but if transferred to another situation — even if the win-loss results or postseason patterns are the same — it might not be sensible.
Such is the case with Georgetown and Clemson.
Georgetown is one of the most disappointing teams in the country, alongside LSU, North Carolina State, and Vanderbilt. The Hoyas gained a No. 4 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament. They even won a first-round game after flaming out in previous years. This season, with D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera back in the fold, big things were rightly expected of the Hoyas. Following Thursday’s quiet exit in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament, their season is over at 15-18.
Georgetown has now missed the Big Dance in two of the past three seasons. That’s plainly not acceptable in Washington, D.C. Frustration in and around the program is not merely subterranean — it’s quite visible. When a program drifts away from the higher standard of the past — the Hoyas reached the Final Four in 2007 under John Thompson III — it’s legitimate to ask why the team is falling short. Thompson certainly has to find a way to make sure these kinds of tournament dry spells don’t recur in the future.
However, while being upset with Thompson is certainly warranted, demanding his firing is something else altogether.
In the bigger picture, Georgetown has made the NCAAs in eight of the past 11 seasons. The Hoyas have been a top-four seed in six of those eight appearances. Viewed through the prism of the past three seasons, not that much winning has occurred at GU, but over the past decade under Thompson, the program has hit its targets in the regular season far more often than not. The 2007 Final Four rightly reinforced the belief that Georgetown could win at the rate it did under JT3’s daddy, Big John, and so recent seasons have made the sense of disappointment in the nation’s capital that much more acute.
However, being frustrated and insisting on a coach firing are two very different things. Yes, Georgetown should be worried about stagnation and drift, but it’s nowhere near time to think about pulling the trigger. Thompson shouldn’t even be on the hot seat next season… well, unless the bottom falls out from under him.
Then consider Clemson.
The Tigers are not the same as Georgetown. These two programs live on different sides of the tracks, for the most part. Yet, you might be surprised to realize that at the start of the 1975 season, the two programs had combined for one NCAA tournament berth — to the Hoyas in 1943. If Big John hadn’t come along when he did in the 1970s, the Hoyas might never have established themselves as they did. They might never have climbed aboard the gravy train that was the Big East Conference. They might never have cultivated the national following which accompanied them in the 1980s, a golden era for big-city college basketball in the Northeast.
Clemson’s first NCAA appearance came in 1980, and the Tigers’ most fruitful period as a program unfolded over the next 17 seasons. In this one isolated respect, the Tigers and the Hoyas are not that far apart. What’s obviously different is Georgetown’s access to prime talent at formidable high schools in the midst of a hoops-centric local culture. Clemson doesn’t have that, and since the Tigers compete with the likes of North Carolina and Duke in the ACC — a much more cutthroat recruiting landscape compared to what Georgetown faces in a reduced-size Big East — their ceiling is simply lower than other schools.
Coaching Clemson can be a thankless task, which is why Brad Brownell and other bench bosses at the school need time in which to grow.
Brownell’s dreams of an NCAA bid died violently on Wednesday night, when his team panicked down the stretch in a spectacular implosion against Georgia Tech. The loss of an 18-point second-half lead — and the game — represented a microcosm of the Tigers’ ACC season: It started quickly, creating much cause for optimism, only to slowly slide away as its fan base watched in horror.
Overall, Brownell exceeded expectations by getting a flawed roster to finish 10-8 in the ACC. Yet, Clemson lost winnable games against relatively mediocre opponents late in the season. The collapse versus Georgia Tech reinforced the extent to which Clemson — for all the overachieving it demonstrated earlier in the season — allowed attainable opportunities to elude its grasp.
Coaches exist on a slippery slope as far as achievement is concerned. “Overachieving,” if sustained long enough, can be considered the new normal, such that future failures become “instances of underachieving” rather than a “regression to the mean.” Brownell took in the plaudits when his bunch rose above pundit-based predictions, but he now has to handle the heat after that disaster against the Yellow Jackets in the ACC Tournament.
When a team suffers a crash-and-burn ending to its (NCAA tournament-seeking) season, a fan base loses confidence in the overall operation. The renovations to Clemson’s arena make this a critical and delicate point in the program’s evolution. Precisely for this reason, no one should think of getting rid of Brownell now. If he can build on this season and teach his players to withstand the rigors (and pressure) of late February and early March, Clemson can take the next step forward and solidify its place in the ACC.
That said, if Clemson stumbles aimlessly through 2017, while Buzz Williams of Virginia Tech continues to impress and Jim Larranaga keeps Miami’s historically downtrodden program in the upper reaches of the ACC, the Tigers might have to consider what they want for 2018.
Given Clemson’s basketball history, however, the Tigers cannot be certain that they can attract the kind of coach who could take them to a higher plateau.
As basketball seasons end around the country, athletic directors and fans alike must consider the longer view, beyond the immediate frustrations of one season. At Georgetown and Clemson, the particularities of situations are quite different; the need for a patient, measured assessment of the bigger picture remains the same.