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A Rare Big Moment For Duke-Clemson

They haven’t happened all that often really.

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ACC Basketball Tournament - Second Round
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 08: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils and Sidy Djitte #50 of the Clemson Tigers battle for the ball during the second round of the ACC Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 8, 2017 in New York City.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Clemson basketball is very famously 0-for-forever in Chapel Hill.

But what’s not generally acknowledged is that the Tigers are almost as bad in Durham – 4-59.

Clemson didn’t get its first win in Cameron until 1976.

Clemson and Duke represent the polar opposites of ACC sports. One reason the league has prospered is the division between strong football schools (Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech) that struggle in basketball and strong basketball schools (Duke, North Carolina) that struggle in football.

Of course, the “basketball” schools sometimes have an occasional strong football season and vice versa. Clemson won an ACC regular season basketball in 1990 – an event so rare and unexpected that the ACC actually give the school a trophy and decided that after 36 years of not awarding a regular season championship, it would acknowledge the first-place finisher as the regular season champion (the real champion was still the tournament winner).

But no other regular season champion has received a trophy from the league.

Clemson is enjoying its strongest basketball season in at least a quarter century this season. Even after Wednesday night’s overtime loss at Florida State, the Tigers are 20-5 and ranked No. 11 nationally headed into Sunday’s showdown with Duke.

Second place in the ACC will be at stake. And while that’s hardly life or death for either team this season, that makes it the most important Duke-Clemson game in a long time.

Indeed, it’s hard to recall a Duke-Clemson basketball game that generated any significant buzz. ACC Tournament matchups are always important, so I guess you could point to the four tourney matchups this century as big games. Or go back two years into the 20th century and recall the great 66-64 Duke-Clemson game in 1998 won by Will Avery’s dramatic basket at the buzzer.

You could go back even further to the 1938 Southern Conference Tournament championship game in Raleigh. The Tigers were enjoying their greatest period of basketball success behind two-sport All-American Banks McFadden. But Duke’s “Never a Dull Moment Boys” pulled out a 40-30 victory for the school’s first championship of any kind.

It was the first of many.

Clemson’s first title came a year later – and it was only because of an experiment with the Southern Conference Tournament rules. Between 1933 (when the Southern Conference split with the SEC) and 1953 (when the ACC split off from the Southern Conference), the league only allowed eight teams to participate in its tournament – every year except 1939. That season, for reasons I have not been able to determine, the Southern Conference expanded the tournament to 11 teams.

Clemson, which only got into the tournament thanks to the one-year expansion, beat North Carolina in the preliminary round, then defeated Wake Forest, Davidson and Maryland to win the school’s first – and to this day only – conference championship (aside from that bogus regular season title in 1990).

The Tigers are the only one of the ACC’s founding members that has failed to win a title. Clemson has only reached the finals twice – 1962 and 2008 – both times upsetting Duke in the semifinals.

It’s hard to believe that this Clemson team is going to shake of generations of basketball mediocrity and win something significant. The 2018 Tigers were picked 13th in the ACC preseason poll for a reason.

In hindsight, that pick was justifiable. Clemson coach Brad Brownell lost his best player – third-team All-ACC Jaron Blossomgame – along with starting center Sidy Djitte and No. 3 scorer Avry Holmes off a team that was 17-16 in 2017 – 6-10 in the ACC. And seven games into the 2018 ACC season, Brownell lost senior forward Donte Grantham – the team’s leading scorer and best all-around player – for the season.

Clemson has gone 4-2 since losing Grantham.

It’s going to be hard to beat Virginia’s Tony Bennett for ACC coach of the year honors, but Brownell has got to get strong consideration.

He has his team in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. That was Brownell’s first season. Clemson won a play-in game that season – the school’s only NCAA win since Rick Barnes reached the Sweet 16 in 1997.

While Clemson has not enjoyed much success in the Triangle, it has won its share of games with Duke in Littlejohn. Duke is 24-18 all-time in Clemson’s home arena, but the Tigers have a number of significant wins in the series – including a win in 1980 over No. 1 Duke. The Blue Devils have lost three of the last five at Clemson (although one of the losses was in Spartanburg, while Littlejohn was being remodeled).

Clemson is 13-0 at home this season (4-4 on the road and 3-1 on neutral courts). They have non-conference wins at Big Ten leader Ohio State, Florida and South Carolina, in addition to ACC wins over North Carolina, Louisville and Miami.

In the long run, Saturday’s battle for second place in the ACC standings isn’t that important. Neither team is going to catch Virginia for the regular season title. For Duke, a win could help keep alive the team’s faint hopes for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed (although it would take a lot more than that to make it happen). For Clemson, a win would solidify the Tigers’ top 20 status and its hopes for a good (top three?) NCAA seed.

Of course, Duke is used to playing games that matter in February. Not so for the Tigers Heck, at this point last year, Clemson was 14-11 and 4-9 in the ACC.

So it’s an important game, as strange as it seems to be playing an important game against Clemson late in the regular season.

Important, yes, but there will be games ahead that mean a lot more.

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