There have been many times over the years I have wished national awards took into account postseason play, not just the regular season. I know the theory behind making a presentation after the regular season, because the selection is made based on an even playing field. Everyone plays a regular season, but not everyone makes the postseason.
But the postseason is when the most important games are played. The all-time example for Clemson took place during the 2015 and 2016 football seasons. Deshaun Watson finished third and second, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy race, which was voted on in early December. If the Heisman vote had been after the College Football Playoff each year, there is a good chance Watson would have two Heisman Trophies on his mantle in Houston instead of none.
Perhaps a little less obvious result would have been a postseason vote for ACC or even national coach-of-the-year in college basketball. Virginia had an incredible regular season that included a 17-1 league record and ACC Tournament title under Tony Bennett, and he won ACC Coach-of-the-Year and most of the national coach-of-the-year honors. But Bennett’s Cavaliers lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed by 20 points to UMBC, the first time any No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 16 seed.
Given that result and Clemson’s run to the Sweet 16 that included a 31-point win over Auburn, the largest victory margin for any team in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, SI.com named Brad Brownell national coach-of-the-year in its postseason awards released in early April.
What Brownell and the Tigers accomplished this year was coach-of-the-year stuff. There were 25 wins to tie the official school record that had been done twice before. However, 12 of the wins came against ACC teams, the most in school history for a season. Nine of those wins were against NCAA Tournament teams, most in school history.
The Tigers were picked 13th in the preseason poll by the ACC media and finished tied for third, the greatest improvement for any team from the preseason poll to the postseason finish in ACC history.
There was an ACC Tournament victory and two NCAA Tournament wins, just the second time Clemson has done that (1989,90). The run to the Sweet 16 was the first for the program since 1997.
The victory that put Clemson in the Sweet 16 was an aforementioned 84-53 win over Auburn in the second round game at San Diego. I posted on Twitter that it was the most impressive victory I have witnessed by a Clemson basketball team in my 40 years covering the program, and it got over 2,000 likes and 300 retweets.
The reason I made the post was because of the margin of victory over a quality team. It was a 31-point win over a top-20 team that won the SEC regular-season title in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers were dominant from virtually start to finish. It was 43-19 at the half and 70-29 at one point, allowing me to state on the radio broadcast, “I feel like we are watching a Connecticut women’s game.”
Clemson had just seven turnovers against 19 assists and made 10 three-pointers. The Tigers won the rebounding 50-32 and held Auburn to 53 points on 17-66 shooting, just 26 percent.
All this was accomplished without the services of arguably Clemson’s best all-around player and leader, Donte Grantham. When he suffered a torn ACL against Notre Dame on Jan. 20, he was averaging 15 points per game, eight rebounds per game, shooting 56 percent from the field, 42 percent from three-point range and 78 percent from the free-throw line. Only Trevor Booker has had a season with similar numbers across the board.
Other ACC teams folded this year when they lost such a talented player to injury. But not Brownell’s Tigers.
When the final No. 15 ranking was published after the NCAA Championship by the coaches, it was just the third time Clemson had finished in the top 15 in school history, the first time since a No. 8 final ranking in 1997.
It was truly a season to savor.