Clemson proves that it belongs, UAB doesn't with First Four romp
Clemson beat UAB 70-52 in one of the NCAA tourney's first-ever First Four games
The Blazers, a controversial at-large selection, played right into the backlash
The Tigers, grossly underrated as a No. 12 seed, advance to play West Virginia
DAYTON, Ohio -- The NCAA logo at center court looked the same. Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg looked the same. And as Clemson guard Tanner Smith said, Tuesday's first-ever First Four games shared the most important element as the Tigers' previous three NCAA tournament appearances.
"It's the same rule -- you lose, that's it," said Smith, whose 12th-seeded team secured its first tourney victory since 1997 in dominating fashion, drilling UAB 70-52 to advance to Thursday's round of 64 against West Virginia.
The NCAA's new event seemed to go off without a hitch. It drew 10,205 spectators to University of Dayton Arena for a pair of games with no remotely local teams. (No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville topped Arkansas-Little Rock 81-77 in overtime in the first game.) But it also may have caused some unintended consequences.
In the past, the inevitable Sunday night debate over the last few teams selected usually vanished as soon as the first games were played. The First Four, however, could well become a two-day referendum on the committee's selections -- like its controversial choice of UAB.
On Sunday night, Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas and Co. hammered the committee for selecting UAB, and two nights later, the Blazers played right into the backlash. Alabama, Colorado and Virginia Tech fans presumably watched their unraveling with gnashed teeth.
|(12) Clemson||(12) UAB|
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But to focus on UAB would be a disservice to Clemson, because the team that played here Tuesday looked like it never should have even been on the bubble.
"Definitely, we should have been a higher seed," said forward Devin Booker. "We had to show the nation that we were deserving. Hopefully they got the point."
First-time truTV viewers needed only to watch a few minutes to get the point. The mismatch was apparent from the get go, as Clemson forced six turnovers in the game's first five minutes, and big men Jerai Grant and Booker drove the lane at will. They went on an early 21-2 run to go up 25-7. UAB's best response was to fire away from three, which it did quite adeptly, but hitting 7-of-15 three-pointers only got it a 12-point halftime deficit.
The Blazers did a better job in the second half keeping the Tigers out of the paint, and star guard Jamarr Sanders (19 points) helped the Blazers stay within a respectable margin. But starting with about eight minutes left, Clemson got the ball back inside to Grant, who finished with a season-high 22 points, to put it away. Adding one last layer to UAB's agony, all-conference senior guard Aaron Johnson broke his leg on a gruesome play under the basket with 5:44 remaining. He left the arena on crutches with his leg in a cast.
To listen to Blazers coach Mike Davis tell it, his players' pain began before they ever arrived in Dayton. He was none too pleased with the particularly harsh criticism leveled at his team by certain television analysts Sunday night.
"They think so highly of opinions that people say about them on national TV," said Davis. "For our guys to have to witness that was really, really heartbreaking for them. I can't even explain to you the magnitude of how crushed they were to hear that."
Their best revenge, of course, would have been to win Tuesday night. But the same NCAA committee that awarded UAB its berth may have also inadvertently set it up to fail by matching it up with a grossly underseeded team, one that held a 14-point lead over top-10 foe North Carolina in last Saturday's ACC semifinal before Harrison Barnes and the Tar Heels rallied to win in overtime.
If you go by Jeff Sagarin or Ken Pomeroy's power ratings -- which account for victory margin and points per possession -- Clemson-UAB was not a matchup of tightly bunched No. 12 seeds. Sagarin had Clemson 42nd and UAB 53rd. Pomeroy: Clemson 24th, UAB 56th.
In their first year under coach Brad Brownell, the Tigers employ a less frenetic pace than they did under predecessor Oliver Purnell but still thrive at forcing turnovers and creating fast-break opportunities. The 6-foot-8 tandem of Grant and Booker don't necessarily overwhelm all opponents' frontcourts but they dominated the undersized Blazers, producing a 40-12 edge in the paint.
"We're going to ride our defense because that's what we're good at," said Smith. "When our defense picks up, we get those easy transition baskets."
But despite the advent of more advanced metrics, the NCAA's committee continues to use the RPI as its primary evaluation tool. Mind you, it doesn't choose the teams based on their RPI ratings, but it does use it almost exclusively in gauging the quality of their opponents.
While that may make sense for choosing the 37 at-large teams, where the goal is to pick the most deserving teams, it does a disservice in seeding, where the actual quality of the teams should dictate the balancing of the bracket. ACC teams didn't fare well in the RPI, so Clemson's merits weren't properly weighted.
As a result, No. 5 seed West Virginia will be facing a fairly evenly matched opponent -- albeit one facing an exhausting 36-hour turnaround between games -- Thursday in Tampa, while another No. 5 seed, Arizona, gets Memphis -- ranked 67th by Sagarin, 85th by Pomeroy.
As if Bob Huggins needed a reason to be grumpy.
"They got an early scouting report on us," said Booker. "They probably thought we were going to win this game and started watching more of our tape, but then they got to watch us play tonight."
The matchup of Clemson's defense against West Virginia's poor shooting offense (it ranks 204th nationally in effective field-goal percentage) has all the makings for a classic 12-5 upset. But the game won't be played in a vacuum, and there's reason to wonder whether the Tigers will be able to play at full speed.
Tuesday's game ended shortly before midnight EST, after which the Tigers dressed and fulfilled about 25 minutes of media obligations. From there, they were scheduled to head straight to the airport for a late-night charter flight to Tampa, where they'll practice and hold another news conference Wednesday. Tipoff is set for 12:15 p.m. Thursday.
"Hopefully I'll get a little sleep on the plane," said Booker.
Not that they're complaining. For the first time in the Tigers' NCAA careers, they've advanced to play another game. They're probably not Final Four-bound, but they probably will cause some fans to put more thought into Clemson's section of the bracket.
There's at least one benefit to this newfangled First Four. Unlike the selection committee, you still have time to change your picks.
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