It’s true that in a 30-game regular season, single nights or weekend afternoons don’t fully determine postseason destinations.
When experts say that “Game X is an elimination game” or “Game Y is a must-win,” it’s true that the weight of a season and all its hopes fall upon that one contest. However, such a perception (real or not) exists because of what came before… and what lies ahead. Single games might carry a lot of importance, but the other 29 games (not counting conference tournaments) shape that importance.
Such was the case for the Clemson Tigers Monday night in their temporary home, Bon Secours Wellness Arena, also known as, “The Well.”
Clemson — like Butler, UCLA, and Wisconsin — is a team which will end the season with a double-digit number of losses and some high-profile wins. These are the messy resumes which get discussed a lot in early March. The Tigers worked their way close to the top of the ACC standings a few short weeks ago, but the inability to win road games against mid-level teams in the league (Florida State and Virginia Tech) severely crippled their at-large candidacy. If only because of their recent stumbles, Monday night’s game against surging Notre Dame was important.
However, what’s just as important to note is that the Tigers’ remaining games impose a different kind of limitation on Brad Brownell’s bunch.
Clemson’s remaining schedule should be conducive to a lot of victories, but it’s something of a honey trap. Two games against Georgia Tech, two games against Boston College, and a road trip to struggling but talented North Carolina State accompany a monster home game against Virginia. Yes, Clemson has to go 4-1 in those five non-Virginia games, but three of them are on the road. Yes, the Tigers should mop up in that portion of the schedule, but the flip side — the trap involved in a road game against an inferior team — is that a loss drags down the profile.
Clemson is in that unenviable position of playing games it needs to win — not in the sense that quality-win opportunities exist, but in the sense that it must avoid bad losses. Playing those kinds of games in the middle of February is no fun. Those situations confer a lot of pressure on a team. The Tigers are about to walk a tightrope over the next few weeks. They will have to walk that tightrope with great care… and then bag that home win against Virginia.
They probably don’t have much leverage at this point — that’s where Monday’s loss enters the picture.
This game against Notre Dame — a team which had just taken down North Carolina and looks very much like that dangerous floater you don’t want to see in March — gave Clemson a home-court opportunity to burnish its resume, providing a needed cushion for the weeks ahead. A win over Notre Dame, beyond its immediate value, would have perhaps enabled Clemson to absorb one more road loss with impunity, or to lose to Virginia at home (though probably not both).
Now, without that poker chip in hand, a team with wins over Louisville, Miami and at Syracuse is in trouble.
How can a team with those kinds of wins be in trouble?
When you lose to Georgia… and Massachusetts… and Alabama… and (this has turned out to be an especially unfortunate failure) Minnesota.
Clemson has exceeded all expectations in the ACC portion of its schedule, but the utter absence of non-conference scalps is precisely what made Notre Dame such an important get for the Tigers. Brownell’s boys came up empty.
Therefore, in the next three weeks, anything more than one loss — while perhaps not eliminating the Tigers — will certainly send them to the ACC Tournament in need of at least one win, and very probably more.
Clemson needed leverage Monday night, but it didn’t get it against Notre Dame. The turning-point moment for Clemson football in 2015 came against the Fighting Irish. For the basketball team in 2016, the same could very well turn out to be true… only in the wrong direction.