CLEMSON -- It's all paid off.
Coming to Clemson five years ago and inheriting a 15-13 team, coach Oliver Purnell knew it would take a while. But he took what he had, suffered through a 10-18 year and hit the recruiting trail with a simple message -- come be a part of a power-in-construction.
Thanks to his beliefs and the contributions of his first recruiting class, the Tigers have arrived after a couple of near-misses. After a 70-69 win over Virginia Tech two days ago, Clemson found itself in third place in the ACC, with a bye in the league tournament and finally, finally able to relax when it comes to talking about the NCAA tournament.
Of course nothing's definite, but there aren't many out there who believe Clemson won't be in the field of 65 when it's announced on Sunday.
"Finally our destiny is in our hands," forward James Mays said, sagging against a wall of Littlejohn Coliseum in relief. "We chose what we wanted to do. We came out and played hard and we got some big wins this year. Now we don't have to guess or wonder. We already know we're in."
Mays may be looking forward to it the most. Like fellow senior starters Cliff Hammonds and Sam Perry, Mays suffered through a rough freshman year but figured it would pay off as a sophomore. Instead, he flunked out of school in 2006, just as his teammates were beginning the heart of the ACC schedule, and the Tigers finished 7-9 in the conference.
Mays returned last year as Clemson shot to a 17-0 start, but the team kept shooting itself in the foot during games it could have won. Game-clinching free throws clanged off the rim, Clemson lost five ACC games by five points or fewer and that epic start became a tailspin, leaving the Tigers once again relegated to the NIT.
But this year, all those struggles were reversed. The Tigers (22-8, 10-6) won the games they were supposed to win and took the best two teams in the ACC -- Duke and North Carolina -- to the wire. Late-game collapses turned into late-game rallies and Clemson overcame injuries and the toughest league in the country to emerge with what they wanted.
"This group of seniors has really put their stamp on this program," Purnell said. "All they've done every year is get better and better and better. They've believed and worked their tails off to put our program in the top echelon of the ACC."
The reward is the NCAA tournament, but first comes the ACC tournament. Clemson played well enough to earn a first-round bye, meaning if the Tigers plan to final-stamp their NCAA bid by winning the tourney, there's one less game to worry about.
"Before, we always had to win four games in four days and now it's three games in three days," Hammonds said. "That's what we needed."
The long road that started with three raw talents is nearing an end, but unlike past years, the Tigers know where it's going to end. The only question is how far they can travel along it, which could be a while if Clemson remembers what got it to this point.
"Definitely gives up some momentum going in," Mays said. "I think this is the year we're going to do something big in the tournament. I mean, who wouldn't want to win?"
• ACC tournament bracket • 3C