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Mike Lopresti | | January 2, 2019

The difference the shape of ball makes: College hoops at Clemson and Alabama

Here are the best moments in men's college basketball from 2018

His team is getting ready to face the No. 1 ranked bluebloods of all bluebloods. Yeah, the Clemson coach certainly has a challenging weekend ahead.

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Football’s Dabo Swinney, eyeball-to-eyeball with Alabama? Nah. Basketball coach Brad Brownell. He has to go to Duke. Just another reminder they play more than one sport at Clemson.
(And Alabama, too.)
Alabama and Clemson. What a difference the shape of ball makes.

They’re powerhouses 1 and 1A in football, together again in the national championship game for the third time in four years. There have been 12 semifinals and championship games in the playoff system since 2015.  By late Monday night, this duet of domination will have won 11 of them. Nick Saban is an icon at Alabama, Swinney is getting there at Clemson.
So what about the worlds of Avery Johnson and Brownell? They coach basketball at Alabama and Clemson – round ball leaders in oblong ball-mad places. There are times when it must feel like working in the shadows. This week, for instance.
By the Tide’s count, this would be their 18th national football championship. The basketball team has never been to the Final Four. Neither has Clemson. The Tigers have won one ACC regular season basketball title in history, and never the conference tournament. The football team has won the ACC 18 times.

But hey, the basketball programs have their moments, too, especially lately under Brownell and Johnson. Brownell had Clemson in the Sweet 16 last year – only the school’s fourth in history. Johnson took Alabama to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. Clemson will carry a 10-3 record to Duke. Alabama is 9-3, and will host Kentucky Saturday.
Kentucky and Duke. Saban and Swinney aren’t the only coaches from their schools with important weekends.

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“The football team’s got their heads down handling their business, so we’ve kind of all been bunkered down here a little bit lately,” Brownell said over the phone Wednesday, “We didn’t get the chance to see each other much around the holidays.
“It’s a neat kinship we have here. We’re very much invested in each other’s programs. Dabo and I are friends. He’s a huge basketball fan, was a very good basketball player in high school, loves to play, loves to come to games when he can. They bring football recruits to basketball games, we obviously take a bunch of recruits to football games. This is a small-town place where we see each other a lot more than some other places probably, so we’re very close.”
Still, life has been a little different in the past for basketball coaches at Alabama and Clemson than their football cousins. And not just the size of their contracts, either.
Alabama basketball has won six NCAA Tournament games this century. The football Tide are going after their sixth national championship in 10 years Monday night.

Clemson football has been ranked No. 1 at some point three of the past four seasons. The basketball team’s highest ever ranking was No. 2, for one week back in 1997.

Alabama basketball is 37-112 all-time against Kentucky. Alabama football is 37-2-1 all-time against Kentucky.
Clemson football is 37-19-1 against North Carolina, including 15-11-1 in Chapel Hill. Clemson basketball is 21-132 against North Carolina, including 0-59 in Chapel Hill.
Nearly everyone expected Alabama vs. Clemson for the football championship. Again. Neither Alabama nor Clemson got one vote this week in the basketball polls. The Tide were picked to finish seventh in the SEC, the Tigers sixth in the ACC.
You get the idea. And yet, the basketball programs make their way through all the football frenzy with their own storylines. Never mind that on page 4 of the Tide basketball media guide, under the headline Where Legends Are Made, Big Al the elephant school mascot is waving a large Alabama flag – in the football stadium.

Want to see a young Alabama phenom? Don’t look in Saban's backfield, consider Kira Lewis Jr., leading the basketball Tide in scoring, and he won’t even turn 18 until April. Meanwhile, Johnson both played and coached in the NBA Finals before landing in Tuscaloosa. Saban has a statue, but he was never in the Super Bowl.
Brownell is a Division III player from Indiana who’s found a home at Clemson. He starts three graduate students, and one of them – Marcquise Reed – owns the best career free throw shooting percentage in the history of the school. Brownell misses by five days of being exactly one year older than Swinney.
This is Brownell’s ninth Clemson season, so he has become something of an expert in coexistence. When he took the job in 2010, voices tried to warn him about the dangers of coaching basketball at what was perceived a football school. He decided to work the fan base hard enough to make his sport important, too.

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“You just understand that when your football team is playing in national championships and winning the ACC every year, there’s going to be a lot of football talk. It kind of is what it is, and you get used to it,” he said. “To be honest, it allows us to focus on our team and our program and our players. I think obviously having a great football program is much better than the alternative.  I think there’s way more to be gained from it than not.
“It’s only (negative) if they’re not committed to basketball, and they’re not going to do things to give you a chance to be successful.  We haven’t run into that at all here. We’ve renovated facilities, we have strength coaches, we’ve got chiropractors, we’ve got sports psychologists, we’ve got everything you could possibly want. It’s a misnomer from the standpoint they’re not going to support you and there’s not going to be money there. Because it’s all spent on football. Maybe that happens at some schools, but that certainly hasn’t been the case at Clemson.”

Brownell will be in Durham Saturday, banging heads with Mike Krzyzewski. Monday he’ll be in front of the TV, watching Swinney do the same thing with Nick Saban. One Clemson coach trying to beat a top-ranked legend this weekend, watching another Clemson coach trying to do the same thing.
“I wasn’t a football guy, but I love watching college football,” Brownell said. “I think we can learn from the college football coaches, things about coaching and how they deal with the big numbers they deal with, and organization.”
By the way, Clemson is 4-14 against Alabama in football, but the Tigers are 6-4 in basketball. Too bad they've never met on an NCAA Tournament court in March. They go so well together on the field in January.

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