Clemson senior forward James Mays has been at the forefront of an unprecedented run … on ice and tape.
There was an eye infection that bothered him at Mississippi State in mid November. There was a hip injury that cost him five games in November and December. Then there was a nagging shoulder ache. And then there was a broken left hand he suffered during warmups for the Jan. 6 game against North Carolina that forced him to wear a cumbersome cast for the next 13 games.
"I just fought through them and kept going," he said.
And Mays has embodied the unwavering determination and uncommon resiliency of the whole team, which is now on a different kind of run — all the way to Tampa for the NCAA Tournament. Clemson hadn't made it to the NCAAs, the measuring stick of national relevancy for a program, since 1998.
"It's been that long? Wow," said former Clemson star Elden Campbell.
"Wow" is a fitting word for this year's Tigers (24-9), the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region who open against No. 12 Villanova (20-12) on Friday night.
Devoid of that singular talent like many nationally-ranked teams, the Tigers use 10 players in a high-energy pressing defense that forces an average of nearly 18 turnovers to go with almost 10 steals and a balanced scoring attack with five players averaging double figures.
"They are one of the best teams in the country," said coach Roy Williams after his top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels nipped the Tigers 86-81 in Sunday's ACC tournament final.
"Clemson's as good a team as we've played," echoed Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, whose team lost to the Tigers in the ACC semifinals, ending a 22-game winning streak against them and putting the Tigers in the league title game for just the second time, the other in 1962. "We've played a lot of championship-level teams this year, but Clemson's right there."
Clemson dealt with some emotional pain along the way, two crushing losses to North Carolina during the regular season. Clemson squandered late leads in both games, eventually losing in overtime. The loss in Chapel Hill extended Clemson's NCAA-record streak to 0-53 there.
"When you've got good character and you've got experience and you've been through a lot of tough things before, you're better equipped (to handle setbacks)," said Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, in his fifth year after successful rebuilding jobs at Old Dominion and Dayton. "That's obvious with this team when you look at what it's been through."
Last year looked like the breakthrough for the Tigers. Clemson started 17-0 and was the last undefeated team in the land. But the Tigers lost 10 of their next 14 games and went to the NIT, losing in the final at Madison Square Garden.
"We got kind of cocky and didn't understand how to accept that role," captain Cliff Hammonds said bluntly. "We stopped practicing as hard as we needed to and got complacent, thinking we were unbeatable and we got into conference (play) and they handed it to us and showed us that if we don't keep working, if we don't get after it each and every day in practice, the glory is not ours."
This year would be different, they told themselves.
While outsiders derisively said the Tigers "cracked" last year, Clemson had a new attitude it could play with and beat anybody. Purnell fueled that. He didn't merely set the bar at an NCAA bid, he boldly talked, early and often, about going on an unprecedented run … in March.
"We're playing at a high level," he said, the loss on Sunday notwithstanding. "I fully expect our guys will bounce back and play well and play hard in the NCAA Tournament because that's what they've done all year long."
"There's been a confidence we can accomplish big things," added Mays. "And that confidence level has just been getting better and better."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.