OMAHA, Neb. – Let’s see, we have No. 1 seed Kansas in the Midwest Regional. And no. 2 seed Duke. And frequent March presence Syracuse. There are 36 Final Four trips and eight national championships in that trio.
And then there’s . . . hmmm . . . oh, yeah . . . Clemson. The interloper among the royalty.
The Tigers might have the palest NCAA Tournament past of this foursome, but they’re the team that just mashed a major conference season champion – the SEC’s Auburn – by 31 points to get here.
“We’ve been the underdog the entire year. It’s nothing new,” said guard Gabe DeVoe, who is averaging 22 points and shooting 64 percent in the tournament.
“When you’re in this type of competition with these great schools that have those accolades under their belt, it’s easy for us to be in the shadows,” forward Aamir Simms mentioned. “It’s actually what we want. We can just relax, the pressure’s not really on us, so we can just keep being ourselves."
So maybe we should get to know a little about them, before they try to make trouble for Kansas Friday night.
1. Kansas has 105 NCAA Tournament victories in its history. Clemson has 11.
2. This is the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament since 2011, and first Sweet 16 appearance in 21 years. Kansas has been this far 13 times in those 21 years.
3. The two schools have never played. “Guess we want to start the series off right,” guard Marcquise Reed said Thursday after practice.
5. Coach Brad Brownell is an Evansville, Indiana native and was a high school teammate of Calbert Cheaney, who became an All-American at Indiana and remains the Big Ten’s all-time career scorer.
6.Brownell played his college basketball at Division III DePauw University in Indiana and led the team three seasons in a row in assists. Four years later, DePauw would bring in another guard who was thinking about coaching one day. Brad Stevens.
7. The 31-point win over Auburn was the largest against a ranked opponent in Clemson history. The old record for games away from home was only 13 points. It is also the largest by any team so far in this NCAA Tournament.
8. This is only Clemson’s second basketball game ever in Omaha. The first one was against Creighton in 1962. But the baseball team has been in the College World Series down the street 12 times. When the Tigers beat Auburn last week to get here, they broke out Clemson baseball bats in the locker room for the occasion.
9. Clemson won 11 ACC season games for the first time ever – after being picked to finish 13th in the conference. They were No. 20 in the last Associated Press poll – after not receiving a single vote in the AP rankings until the fifth poll in early December. “It’s always good,” Simms said, “to prove doubters wrong.”
10. Clemson’s first appearance in the bracket did not come until 1980 – the 42nd NCAA Tournament. By then, fellow ACC member North Carolina had already been 13 times. The Tigers went to the Elite Eight – their deepest run so far– on their first try.
11. Clemson suffered one of the most excruciating buzzer-beating losses in NCAA Tournament history in the Sweet 16 in 1990. The Tigers rallied from 19 points down in the second half to take a 70-69 lead on No. 1 seed Connecticut with 12 seconds left. With one second left – after the Huskies rebounded a missed Clemson free throw and called timeout -- UConn’s Scott Burrell threw a 75-foot pass to Tate George, who turned and threw in a jumper. In one second.
12. Five Clemson players averaged in double figures scoring this season, only the third time in history that’s happened. But one, senior Donte Grantham, was lost for the season in January with a knee injury. “It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve been through,” Grantham said Thursday, forced to be here as a spectator. “Just to know that I’ve put in all the work in the offseason, really dedicated myself to getting better . . . and me dreaming about being here since I was young.”
13. Clemson went 4-2 this season in ACC games decided by five points or fewer. Last season, the Tigers went 2-8.
14. Clemson hit 15 shots in a row at North Carolina in January, in what is believed to be a school record. The Tigers still lost 87-79, making them 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill.
15. DeVoe, Clemson’s senior leader, was class president in high school. He started a beard last summer. Good idea, apparently. His scoring average with the beard is 13.7. Clean-shaven, he was at 5.3.
16. Reed has Clemson’s all-time best career free throw percentage at 87.1 He’s beating a record that has stood for 51 years.
17. Center Elijah Thomas, a Dallas product and Texas A&M transfer, is the first Texas native to ever sign to play basketball at Clemson.
18. Reserve forward Mark Donnal is a graduate transfer from Michigan and played in five NCAA Tournament games with the Wolverines, so he was the only Tiger in the locker room who came into March knowing what this is all about. “The funny thing is,” he said, “a lot of guys have acted like they’ve been here before.”
19. Clemson athletics are on a roll. The football team made it to semifinals of the football playoffs, and the baseball team started 16-1 and has been ranked as high as No. 2. Now it’s basketball turn to try to make a national splash. “If you can get in this tournament, as competitive as our league is, you’re going to have a chance to advance,” Brownell said. “I believed in this team from the start.”
Move over, bluebloods.