Mid-March brings a healthy dose of excitement to the college basketball world, with the regular season fading to conference championships and then into national tournaments at every level.

While the USC Aiken men’s program is not exempt from that, especially during this year’s run to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, the time of year is also met with emotions of another type.

In the early-morning hours of March 18, 2009, USCA junior guard Javonte Clanton was on his way home to Ohio when he crashed his car and died in West Virginia. The Pacers had lost in a program-first trip to the regional finals earlier the previous evening to Augusta State in Augusta.

Current senior guard Re’mon Nelson, who is from the same area as Clanton and knew him before coming to Aiken, said that made winning the 2013 Southeast Regional title even sweeter.

“Four years ago, my friend Javonte Clanton passed away after losing this game (the Division II NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional championship game),” he said on Tuesday. “To win it now means a lot.”

Head coach Vince Alexander added that Clanton was Nelson’s recruiting host and played a big role in bringing Nelson – who now holds USCA career records in steals and assists – to Aiken.

While the rest of the team doesn’t have the personal connection to Clanton that Nelson does, Alexander said that his late former player is and always will be a part of the program.

His picture hangs in the locker room, and his character has become a part of the team’s annual preparations for each season.

“At the beginning of the season, we always talk about expectations. Javonte Clanton was a committed athlete as well as student. ... He demanded the most in his teammates, from his teammates,” Alexander said. “We talk about the fact that he was one of the hardest-working players to come through this program.”

While his life and personality have perhaps the largest impact on the Pacer program, even the way Clanton died has changed the way the team operates. The accident happened around 8:30 a.m., roughly 450 miles into a 600-mile trip, when Clanton reportedly fell asleep at the wheel.

As a result, players now have to speak with a member of the coaching staff if they plan to travel home on an off-day or after a game.

“We have a team rule that you cannot travel without contacting a coach and letting us know,” Alexander said.

This year’s team has already joined the 2008-09 squad as the only ones to advance to the regional final and surpassed that team by winning the game.

Six players on the 20th-ranked 2012-13 version of the Pacers – Nelson, Ron Zimmerman, Paul Larsen, Santoine Butler, Jesse Seilern and Kinley Branch – have a chance to join Clanton and his mates in another accomplishment.

Thursday’s matchup with national No. 7 Drury – set for 8:30 p.m. in Louisville, Ky. – will be their 33rd game played, tied with Clanton’s team for most in program history.

“It ties into the story, so I guess it is quite fitting,” Alexander said of this region champion joining one of his most-remembered former players.

Alexander has said that regardless of what is going on with the Pacers, his mind turns to Clanton this time of year. Always willing to talk about his Christian faith, this team’s success has put a positive spin on this year’s thoughts about the tragedy.

“He’s been on my mind a lot the past few days,” Alexander said. “I know Javonte is celebrating with us. He’d be so proud of these guys. He’s celebrating.”

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.