Few can forget Clemson’s 74-47 thrashing of Duke last February. The lopsided victory was the Blue Devils’ worst loss in more than 13 seasons. Such an embarrassment left head coach Mike Krzyzewski dumbfounded, sitting throughout much of the second half with his hands covering his blank face, questioning what had happened to his fourth-ranked team.
“It was 40 minutes of them dominating. They just kicked our butts,” Krzyzewski said last year. “[Our team] shouldn’t forget this loss.”
The No. 7 Blue Devils, nearly a year later, now have their chance for revenge against the Tigers at the notoriously hostile Littlejohn Coliseum Saturday at 9 p.m. Still recovering from an 88-74 loss at N.C. State, however, Duke (15-3, 3-2 in the ACC) faces a formidable challenge in No. 17 Clemson (15-4, 3-2) in large part due to one of the most underrated home environments in college basketball.
Since opening in 1968, Littlejohn Coliseum has been the host to 50 Clemson wins against ranked opponents—21 coming against top-10 teams—and has propelled the Tigers to an impressive .750 home winning percentage. Earlier this season, then-No. 13 North Carolina met the same fate Duke did last year, as the Tar Heels were dominated, 83-64.
While many people believe Cameron Indoor Stadium—with its notorious Cameron Crazies—creates the most intimidating and disruptive atmosphere for visiting opponents in all of college basketball, EA Sports NCAA Basketball representatives recently named Littlejohn Coliseum No. 2 on their list of Toughest Places to Play, three spots higher than Cameron.
The producer of NCAA Basketball ‘10, Novell Thomas—who attended a Tigers game against Maryland last season—was particularly impressed with Clemson’s student cheering section, which refers to itself as the OPP, or Oliver Purnell’s Posse. The OPP, coupled with the Tiger Band, creates an incredibly disruptive, orange-filled atmosphere for opposing teams.
“What I love is the fact that the student section is positioned behind both hoops and literally within five feet of any would-be inbounders along the baseline,” Thomas said. “They knew how to get under the skin of the players.”
Thomas also added that the OPP had some great banter, some of it not suited for print.
Most notably, though, Purnell’s relentless, suffocating 1-2-1-1 full-court press fuels the Tigers’ high-energy defense. Clemson’s aggressive defensive style forces turnovers, opening opportunities for emphatic dunks, which make the raucous OPP nearly unbearable for visiting opponents.
The reality of playing in Littlejohn does not bode well for Duke. Despite the Blue Devils’ impressive ACC-opening victory over Clemson, in which the team held the Tigers to 12 first-half points, Littlejohn may expose Duke’s Achilles’ heel: playing on the road. The Blue Devils’ 11-0 record when playing in Cameron overshadows their dismal 0-2 record in ACC away games and 0-3 overall road record. A defeaning Littlejohn crowd wil provide perhaps the truest test to the Blue Devils’ court composure, which has been suspect on the road. In Duke’s three losses away from home, the Blue Devils have had an assist-to-turnover ratio below one, while averaging a 1.42 assist-to-turnover ratio in all other games.
Even though Saturday night will be a difficult battle, look for the Blue Devils to be ready to play and focused on proving to the country that they can win on the road.
“It’s not like we can’t win on the road,” senior Jon Scheyer reiterated after the N.C. State loss. “A lot of guys in this locker room have won a lot of tough games.”
On Saturday, the OPP will have its chance to challenge that.
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