Wake Forest faces Clemson in early ACC showdown

Published 10:36 pm Saturday, January 17, 2009

By By PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer
CLEMSON, S.C. — Satellite TV trucks. A sold out arena. Two undefeated top 10 teams playing at Clemson — in a basketball game.
This is the setting for Clemson’s latest chance to make its Atlantic Coast Conference mark in something other than football. And support for the basketball team has rarely been so high in coach Oliver Purnell’s six seasons.
The 10th-ranked Tigers (16-0, 2-0 ACC) take on No. 2 Wake Forest (15-0, 2-0) today in front of a sellout crowd. Clemson sold out its last home game, a win over North Carolina State, and have at least two more sellouts ahead after this one.
Such frenzied, exciting times on campus are mostly reserved for football, where the Tigers have won several ACC titles and the 1981 national championship. Fall Saturday’s at nearby Memorial Stadium — nicknamed Death Valley — feature 80,000 orange-clad fans. And this weekend’s visits of Tiger football recruits will take a backseat to the Wake Forest game — but just barely.
So Purnell speaks with more than a bit of pride with his team’s undefeated start, and the attention it’s brought.
Purnell came to Clemson with hopes to bring the Tigers back up where they were in 1997, the last time Littlejohn played host to a top-10 ACC showdown. Then, like now, it was the Demon Deacons on the other bench.
That team was led by future NBA star Tim Duncan, who brought fourth-ranked Wake against a group of fiery, second-ranked Tigers revived by Rick Barnes.
Duncan’s dominance won out. He had 16 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks in Wake Forest’s 65-62 nailbiter.
On Saturday, the Demon Deacons can earn its place in history — Wake has never opened with 16 straight wins.
Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio took his players into the practice gym this week to see the mural of Duncan and banners celebrating other school greats.
Clemson can tie its best start with a win, first set by the 1986-87 squad led by future NBA champion Horace Grant then equaled two years ago.
The Tigers topsy-turvy 2007 season is probably a strong contributor to why they’re not ranked higher this year as one of the country’s three remaining Division I unbeatens.
At 17-0 and 3-0 in the league two seasons ago, Purnell seemed a lock for ACC coach of the year and Clemson for its first NCAA tournament since Barnes’ earned the Tigers three straight trips from 1996-98.
Then the Tigers lost 9 of their next 11, dropping out of the ACC picture and the NCAA tournament contention.
Hoops experts wrote off Clemson and Tiger fans checked on spring practice and football tickets.
Purnell and the Tigers feel they’ve built something more solid, not dependent on a strong coaching personality like Barnes or a standout player like Grant.
Clemson’s rise starts with Purnell’s smothering defense. The Tigers pressure from baseline to baseline for much, if not all, of the game. Purnell’s rotation goes 10 deep and shuttles them in and out every couple of minutes.
Wake Forest’s top scorer Jeff Teague can expect to see several different faces in his way. Purnell thought his point guards, Demontez Stitt and Andre Young, would get the bulk of the work slowing down Teague, the ACC’s second-leading scorer at 21.2 points.
Rivers and his teammates hope fans and others remain as aware of Clemson basketball as they’ve been in recent weeks. Keep winning, Gaudio says, and attention won’t be a problem.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary from Winston-Salem, N.C., contributed to this report.