First, they said the ACC was terrible. Then they said it was top-heavy.

What are they going to say now?

Sure, it’s no surprise that the league will be represented in the Elite Eight. North Carolina has been a top team all season, Duke is Duke and NC State is a feel-good story.

But Clemson?

Playing for national championships is nothing new for the Tigers. In football, at least.

Not hoops.

It’s one thing for the 5th-place team in the Big 12, SEC or Mountain West to make a deep run in the tournament. But this team couldn’t even beat Boston College in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.
No way it can compete against the likes New Mexico, Baylor and Arizona. Right?

Brad Brownell’s 6th-seeded team was an underdog against each of those teams in its first 3 NCAA Tournament games, according to ESPN Bet sportsbook. And yet, Clemson is the 1 still dancing.

With their 77-72 upset of the 2nd-seeded Arizona on Thursday, the Tigers are just 1 win from earning the their Final Four appearance in school history. They’ll get their shot on Saturday against either conference rival UNC or Alabama.



It’s doubtful anyone other than Brad Brownell and his players could possibly have imagined this happening. But it’s not a bolt out of the blue, either.

One need only look back as far as last Dec. 29 to get a glimpse of how good this Clemson team had the potential to be.

On that date, the Tigers were 11-1 and ranked No. 16 in the country. Among their nonconference victims were Alabama, South Carolina, TCU, UAB and Boise State – all of whom went on to earn bids to the NCAA Tournament.

It was only after they began the conference schedule that trouble began.

At the time, Clemson’s 2-5 start in the ACC was interpreted as proof of how shallow the league had become. It was part of a feeding frenzy that led to doom-and-gloom predictions from all of the most prominent national talking heads.

Did Lunardi, Rothstein and the others really believe the ACC was just a 2- or 3-bid league? Or were they trolling for clicks?

In retrospect, maybe the middle and bottom of the ACC have simply gotten better. And just maybe the adversity the Tigers faced in January and February helped toughen them up enough to handle the competition and pressures that come in March.

It sure looked that way early in the 2nd half on Thursday.

After leading by as many as 13 points through a near-flawless opening half, Clemson got knocked to the canvas by a massive Arizona response that saw it take its first lead of the game at 46-45 with 14:33 remaining.

It was the kind of blow from which lower seeds usually don’t recover in a game of this magnitude. But Clemson didn’t back down in taking Duke to the brink at Cameron. Or when it beat UNC at Smith Center a few weeks later.

It took just 20 seconds for Jack Clark to hit a 3-pointer that put the Tigers back ahead.

With the inside-outside duo of PJ Hall and Chase Hunter doing a majority of work on the offensive end and a defense that forced Pac-12 Player of the Year Caleb Love into an 0-for-9 shooting performance from beyond the 3-point arc, they held on for by far the most significant victory in school history.
And Clemson’s first trip to the Elite 8 since 1980.

Inevitably, someone is going to dismiss the result as a product of Love getting caught looking ahead to a possible reunion against former backcourt mate and Tar Heel antagonist RJ Davis. Or some other random explanation to downplay the accomplishment and save themselves the embarrassment of having to admit they were wrong about the ACC.

They can try to use computer metrics to spin whatever narrative they like. But in the end, the only numbers that don’t lie are the ones that flash on the scoreboard at the end of the game.

And right now, those numbers are coming up a winner for both Clemson and the ACC.