NCAA Basketball: Duke at Clemson

Brad Brownell never brought it up with his players or even his staff. But as spring turned into summer and summer turned into autumn, everyone around the Clemson program realized what was likely on the line for this 2022-23 season: Brownell's job. 

Brownell's one of a handful of coaches believed to be working under an unspoken decree to make this year's NCAA Tournament in order keep their gig into next year and beyond. Brownell opened up to CBS Sports this week and acknowledged the elephant in the room.

"Hecklers and hot seats and people on your ass," was how he described the part of the job he almost never talks about. 

To the surprise of many, 19th-ranked Clemson is 15-4 and rates as a tournament team (for now). Not just that, but a Tigers squad that was picked 11th in the ACC is in the rare position of sitting atop the league standings in the second half of January. The Tigers, who didn't have key starting point guard Chase Hunter in their Tuesday night 87-77 loss at Wake Forest, nonetheless register as one of the good stories through the first half of the season.

Brownell, 54, has been at Clemson since 2010 and he's made it through a few of these win-or-else campaigns before.

"It happens a lot at this level, has happened at Clemson before, I'm at the point now where I'm just trying to pour everything into my kids, enjoy it as much as I can and enjoy the coaching aspect of it," Brownell said. "I've been a head coach for 21 years, been at Clemson for 13 years. It's hard to be at a place that long. I get it. Occasionally does it rub you the wrong way? Sure it does, because you think you've done a pretty good job, but you understand the nature of the business, put your head down and keep going at it. You can't consume yourself with what's going on around you." 

Clemson's win Saturday over Duke was Brownell's 400th career victory, and his 233 wins at Clemson are the most in school history. He's the best coach Clemson's had. So why's a guy like this even in a hot-seat season? Primarily: Brownell's only gone to three NCAA Tournaments with the Tigers. But judging recent comments from Clemson players, and in talking to those around the program, it's clear that everyone in that locker room is all in on Brownell. It's easy to have belief when you're winning 15 of your first 19 games; these guys had belief last April. That's when Clemson's juniors and seniors could have easily opted to transfer and try a new spot instead of sticking around for a team that averaged 16.5 wins the two prior seasons.

P.J. Hall, Chase Hunter, Alex Hemenway and Hunter Tyson all came back. That's why Clemson's 15-4, that's why the Tigers set a school record by opening ACC play 7-0.

"Dude's been through the wringer, he's taken punches year after year," Hall said of his coach Saturday. "People don't realize the dedication, the fight, the competitive spirit he has. There's not a guy on that floor, on either team or in the stands, that's more competitive than Brad Brownell. He'll literally, like, kill you to win a game. It's amazing playing for that guy."

Despite its record, Clemson's résumé is weighed down by a terrible 18-point loss on a neutral court against Loyola Chicago, a program that's been good in recent seasons but is in the midst of one of its worst campaigns of the past 15 years. After Clemson got beat by LUC on Dec. 10, Brownell opted to change his starting lineup. For the first time in 21 years as a head coach, he moved away from a primary three-guard approach. A veteran coach doing this in the middle of a season is rare, all the more because the situation wasn't that desperate. But Brownell and his staff knew they were getting exposed on the boards and that going big was going to give this team a chance defensively. 

It's paid off. Tyson moved from the 4 to the 3, combo forward Ian Schieffelin was in inserted into the starting lineup and boom: that is why this team is 15-4 instead of, say, 12-7. There was no pushback from the players when the decision was made.

"We have good leadership," Brownell said. "Because of that, the right messages are being echoed through the locker room, and that's not as easy all the time. I think our group has been pretty even-keeled. We have only one agenda. We don't have a million agendas we are dealing with. Sometimes there's a lot of people wearing the same jersey, but I don't know if there's many true teams out there."

That maturity matters a lot at the moment, with the team not at full strength. Brownell told me Clemson won't be fully healthy until the end of January. Hunter's foot issue isn't expected to keep him out long. Meantime, Hemenway, who's been out with a plantar fascia problem, should be back in the next two weeks.

If this Tigers team is tourney-worthy, it needs to dodge the land mines, because four winnable games are up next: home vs. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, then at Florida State and Boston College. Clemson going 3-1 or better in that stretch would keep it atop the ACC standings when February arrives -- and pave the way for Brownell to be back for a 14th season.

Detroit Mercy v Cincinnati
Antoine Davis' 513 3-pointers are most in college basketball history. Getty Images

Antoine Davis one game away from No. 2 on all-time scoring list

Detroit Mercy's Antoine Davis is using his bonus COVID year for a chase at the record books. Last weekend, he notched an NCAA milestone. The Titans' 87-75 win over Robert Morris included a season-high 41-point outing from Davis, the nation's leading scorer (26.2 ppg). Davis sank 11 3-pointers vs. RMU, his banker's dozen of triples lifting him to 513 for his career and passing Fletcher Magee (Wofford) for most in NCAA history.

It was the fifth time in his five seasons Davis went for 40-plus, bringing his career total to 3,232 points. That's good for third all-time. He'll likely leapfrog to No. 2 in Detroit Mercy's next game on Saturday against 3-16 IUPUI. Davis needs 18 points to pass Portland State's Freeman Williams, who closed with 3,249 points in 1978.

The all-time record, of course, belongs to the late, great Pete Maravich of LSU, who outrageously scored 3,667 points in three seasons in the late '60s -- when the 3-point line didn't exist. Davis sits 435 points behind Maravich. The Titans have 12 regular season games remaining, plus at least one Horizon League tourney game. At his current pace of 26.2 points, Davis needs to play 17 games to pass Maravich.

The bummer of it all? The Titans are bad -- again -- at just 7-12 (3-5 in the Horizon League). The Titans are on their way to a fourth losing season in five years. This story would be so much more fun if Detroit Mercy was a competitive team near the top of the Horizon, but instead, it will need an improbable turn of play in March to extend its season and give Davis a faint chance at catching Maravich.

Midseason Coach of the Year ballot

We're halfway home in '22-23. In light of this, and after seeing the amazing scene Tuesday night in Manhattan, Kansas, I want to show you my national COY rankings: 10 names through 10-plus weeks of the season.

1. Jerome Tang: Tang's wasted no time flipping Kansas State. The Wildcats were 34-58 their final three years under Bruce Weber. Under Tang: a 16-2 start (the school's best since 2009-10) for the team picked last in the Big 12. NOBODY saw this coming. Has to be No. 1 as of now.

2. Matt Painter: Purdue was unranked to start the season yet has been sitting No. 5 or better (with four weeks at No. 1) in the AP Top 25 for the past two months. Purdue was the lead item of last week's Court Report; Painter's roster construction of this team is why he's my clear No. 2 for COY at the halfway point.

3. Sean Miller: Xavier cracked the top 10 of AP Top 25 this week for the first time since 2018. After updating his X-and-O approach, Miller has the Muskies 15-3 overall and undefeated atop the Big East -- with the fifth-ranked offense in the sport. 

4. Kelvin Sampson: Just because you're expected to be great doesn't mean you're not eligible for COY. Sampson's Houston Cougars rank first in multiple advanced metrics, and it's plausible they wind up getting the No. 1 overall seed.

5. Richard Pitino: New Mexico won 13 games last season. It's 17-2 in Pitino's second year and pacing toward its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.

6. Bill Self: Lost three starters from the national title team. So? Ho-hum, Self has Kansas at 16-2 and snugged beside K-State and Iowa State atop the nation's best conference.

7. Dusty May: The 17-1 FAU Owls have won 16 straight and are enjoying not just their best season in school history, but this week marked the first time the program had ever been ranked (No. 24). May's team is legit.

8. Mick Cronin: UCLA hasn't lost in two months and is the class of the Pac-12. Cronin also has this Bruins group defending like some of his best Cincinnati teams.

9. T.J. Otzelberger: Was good in Year 1, is even better in Year 2 at Iowa State (14-3). To the surprise of many, they're pacing to a 3-seed or better, something the Cyclones last did in 2015.

10. Pat Kelsey: You get to 19-1, you're making my list. Charleston, winner of 18 straight, has been molded by Kelsey into one of the best mid-major teams this season.

As for my player of the year rankings, keep reading ...

@ me

The Court Report's mailbag! Find me, toss a Q and I'll answer some each week.

The question was prompted by my tweet Monday that Zach Edey has a nearly insurmountable lead for National Player of the Year. It's still possible someone could wrestle it from him, but it's going to take a mega twist for that to happen. The 7-4 center of attention is averaging 21.9 points, 13.4 rebounds and has been the most statistically impactful guy in all but three games in which he's played. Edey had a career-best 32 points and sank the winner on Monday to push No. 3 Purdue past Michigan State. It's not just his NPOY to lose, it's his to toss out the car window and refuse to drive back and pick up. He's gonna win this thing.  

My four other NPOY candidates at the midway point would be:

Drew Timme, Gonzaga: My preseason pick for NPOY. He's continued his historically memorable college career by averaging a personal-best 21.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He's shooting 61.0% and has done pretty much everything Mark Few has asked of him in this pivotal senior season with the Zags.

Jalen Wilson, Kansas: Wilson, coming off a season-high 38 points in KU's loss to K-State, ranks second in KenPom's kPOY algorithm. He needed to be a big piece to help the reigning champs maintain top-10 status this season, and he's been SO much bigger than that: 20.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.6 apg.

Brandon Miller, Alabama: Easily the best freshman. Miller (20.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 46.2 3pt%) does so much yet has minimal ego. The Crimson Tide are trying to get their first No. 1 seed in program history, and it's thanks to this top-five pick that Nate Oats' team is on pace to win the SEC for the second time in three years. 

Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA: Two of our five preseason All-Americans have matched expectations -- Timme is one, Jaquez the other. UCLA's indispensable wing (16.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 51.4 FG%) still doesn't get as much pub as he deserves nationally.

Xavier being a top-10 outfit at the moment has me pining to get out to Cintas, and soon. I've never been. Relatedly, here are my top five venues I haven't visited that I want to visit most. I'm not including Mackey Arena on this list, because that's getting checked off in less than two weeks.

  1. Bud Walton Arena (Arkansas): One of the 10 largest arenas in the country. I've never been inside Arkansas' borders. Those Hogs teams of the mid-90s help breed my love for this sport, and I'd love to catch a big-time game at the Basketball Palace of Mid-America as soon as possible. 
  2. State Farm Center (Illinois): Something about this place that calls to me. Just a classic concrete roundhouse of a gym, one that often comes across on television like an intimate, intimidating setting. 
  3. Memorial Gym (Vanderbilt): Vandy's seldom good enough to warrant getting me down to Nashville (a city I somehow have never visited), but this is a unique building and I need to scope it out. Team benches are famously on the baseline, not the sideline -- the only venue in D-I hoops where that is the case.
  4. Cintas Center (Xavier): I've watched dozens of games wherein Xavier's been involved in a thriller and the roof seems like it could come off this box. Bonus points for the venue's Wiki page including Ben Folds and Guster among the notable concerts its held inside its walls.
  5. The Pit (New Mexico): An arena more than 5,000 feet above sea level but a setup that has the floor well below street level. I need to see the Lobos in their natural environment. Plus, it's the only one of my five listed to have hosted a Final Four -- one of the most famous of all, NC State's win in 1983.

A question like this arises after Oregon thumps Arizona 87-68. Surprisingly enough, Dana Altman is 17-7 vs. the Wildcats. To your question, Jeremy: Health been a big issue. Until the past week, the Ducks didn't have the full roster available. Now this team is healthy and might play spoiler in the Pac-12. Remember, Oregon was a Top 25 team in the preseason and universally projected in the top three of the Pac-12.

Final shots

• Uh-oh: 12-5 Northwestern is in COVID pause and is trying to reschedule games vs. 12-6 Iowa and 12-5 Wisconsin. NU and UW are attempting to play Sunday if possible.
• Duke is unranked this week for the first time since March 2021. Can the Blue Devils get back without starting PG Jeremy Roach? His toe injury has kept him out the past three games and his return is unknown. Jon Scheyer's managed roster issues decently enough in his debut season, but the last thing any new coach wants is a hampering injury to his best player. Duke needs Roach in order to be a factor in March. 
Arizona State could be for real. The 15-3 Sun Devils have matched their best start since 2008-09. At 6-1 in the Pac-12, ASU is enjoying its best league record through seven games since it started 11-1 in 1980-81.
• Michigan State senior Malik Hall, who missed eight games earlier this season, is out again (ankle). That's a big hit on a team that was finding its stride recently, only to lose its past two. It's been great to see Tyson Walker elevate, but Hall is critical to Michigan State's viability. It's sounding like he'll be back in early February.
• Monitoring ... in its Tuesday win over Davidson, Dayton got the ever-valuable Malachi Smith back after a 10-game absence. The Flyers are 13-6 and have lost one game in five weeks.
• Love this story. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was so impressed by San Diego State's home environment in his one and only trip to Viejas Arena, in early 2020, that he hastily demanded a major architectural change to the Clippers' new coliseum to reflect a college-like environment in an NBA arena.
• How wretched is Georgetown? The Hoyas have lost 33 consecutive games to power-conference opponents -- believed to be a first in college hoops history by any high-major. Included in that drought is a Big East-record 28 straight losses. Georgetown sits at 233 in KenPom. The worst KenPom ending in Big East history is 2015-16 St. John's, which finished 211th. 
• Chris Mooney recently tried to provide some context on why he believes the NCAA Tournament should expand, referencing scheduling discrimination against mid-majors. An inconvenient truth: Last fall, the Atlantic 10 voted against participating in an ambitious non-conference scheduling alliance that would have helped alleviate the exact problem he lays out here.