It may have been far from a thing of beauty, but Clemson's 73-63 road win over Georgia Tech Saturday is arguably the biggest boost to the program's NCAA hopes since Greg Buckner dunked his way through North Carolina in the closing seconds of the opening round of the 1996 ACC Tournament.
Buckner's basket nine years ago, which gave the Tigers a two point lead with just 0.6 seconds left, promptly lifted the team off the NCAA Tournament "bubble" and into the Big Dance for the first time since the 1989-90 season.
And while the ending to Saturday's game was nowhere near as dramatic, it was as important.
Sure, Georgia Tech is no where near the team it was just two years ago when it reached the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. That's obvious to even the casual college basketball fan.
But this win was huge because it was on the road. And the road has not been all that kind to Clemson basketball throughout the history of the program.
Consider this: Clemson's win Saturday was the first ACC road win for the men's basketball program in the heart of the ACC schedule (Jan. 14 - Feb. 14) since the 1997 season. Also: the 10-point margin of victory was the Tigers' largest on the road since the 1998 season - the last year Clemson reached the NCAA Tournament. And finally: the Tigers notched their all-important third conference win - in the month of January, also a rarity in recent years.
Sitting at 3-3, with a favorable second half conference schedule and with a full seven days off to prepare for a very tough N.C. State team, a trip to the NCAA tournament is within the Tigers' grasp.
Take a quick glance at Clemson's remaining ACC schedule for further proof. Next up is N.C. State (home), followed by road games at Florida State and at North Carolina. Then Virginia Tech (home), Boston College (road), Maryland (home), Wake Forest (road), Virginia (home), Virginia Tech (road) and the season finale against Georgia Tech (home).
Notice the games not on this year's schedule? That's right; Clemson does not travel to N.C. State, Duke or Maryland this season. Without question, that already gives the Tigers an easier path to the Big Dance.
For a further breakdown, let us assume that, in what many "experts" consider to be a "down" year in the ACC, Clemson will have to finish .500 or better in the ACC to be considered a legitimate team for the NCAA Tournament.
At 3-3 right now, that means the Tigers would likely have to win four of their final five games at home and one of their final five games on the road to reach that goal. While it may sound far-fetched, road games at Virginia Tech and Florida State are certainly winnable games. And don't forget Clemson has lost only two games so far this year at home - and one of those came at the hands of No. 1 Duke.
Steal more than one game on the road, and all of a sudden "bubble talk" changes to "positioning for a better seed."
Of course, a damaging loss against Elon in December, and a crushing defeat at the hands of Miami just last week are ugly stains that will remain on Clemson's postseason resume from now until Selection Sunday. To balance out those defeats, the NCAA selection committee will most certainly want to see a few more big wins.
And that's where Saturday's win over Georgia Tech comes in.
Beating a quality team in the ACC on the road is no easy task. In fact, under head coach Oliver Purnell, Clemson has done it only three times in three years. But beating Georgia Tech on the road this season, in a late-January battle for upper echelon conference positioning, proves that this team has what it takes to reach the Big Dance.
Furthermore, that's one quality win to help erase the two painful setbacks mentioned above.
What has to happen now to enhance the ol' NCAA Tournament resume? That's easy: the Tigers need to beat a ranked team.
A quick glance over Clemson's 14 wins reveals zero wins over a ranked team. In fact, the best team the Tigers have beaten this season is Wake Forest (12-6, 1-4), which was ranked 35th in the AP poll released last week.
The best opportunity for such a win may be next Sunday against 14th ranked N.C. State. Yes, the Wolfpack's style of offense is difficult to defend, but the game is being played at Littlejohn Coliseum. The only other ranked team the Tigers will get at home the rest of the way is No. 22 Maryland on Feb. 14.
Still, all this "tournament talk" would not be legitimate had Clemson not beaten Georgia Tech Saturday. For the first time in a long time, the Tigers figured out a way to win an ACC road game against a quality team.
Put together a few more of those kinds of wins, and the Tigers will find themselves in the Big Dance for the first time in eight years.
And in year three of the Oliver Purnell era, that's not a bad place to be.
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