Zero and 58.
It sounds bad when you talk about it, but when you spell it out – 0-58 for crying out loud – it looks so much uglier.
But no matter how brutal or lopsided that may seem, it’s reality. In 58 visits to Chapel Hill, Clemson has rode home the loser 58 times. Some of those losses were plain unfair, such as when Clemson lost by 32 during North Carolina’s 2004-2005 national championship season. Others were closer, such as the 11-point loss two seasons ago.
Either way, that’s a lot of sad road trips, and a lot of time for that same hideous streak to marinate.
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And so every time the Tigers visit Chapel Hill, the streak naturally comes up – and with it, every time, the question is raised: Is this finally the year to flip that zero into a one?
Most years, it’s a laughable question, given the drastic difference in the two schools’ basketball history. On one hand, you have the reigning national champions, a consistent fixture in the Top 25 nationally and a pipeline to the NBA. On the other, you have one conference title in school history and no NCAA tournament appearances since 2011. So ... yeah, laughable.
Only this year, it isn’t. This year, Clemson has a legitimate shot to beat Tar Heels on the road.
Is that a bit optimistic? Perhaps. After all, UNC still has some serious leftover talent from last season’s title-winning team, most notably Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, plus the Tar Heels are still the best rebounding team in the nation. Their No. 21 national ranking may not be as high as basketball fans are accustomed to, but it isn’t bad.
The thing is, at the same time North Carolina (14-4, 3-2 ACC) isn’t having its best season, Clemson is.
The Tigers have underacheived the past few seasons under coach Brad Brownell, losing despite the presence of top players such as Jaron Blossomgame and K.J. McDaniels, but this season Brownell has figured it out. Clemson is 15-2, and if not for a missed free throw against N.C. State, it’d have the best record in the best conference in the country.
That’s a product of a few things. First, Clemson plays sound defense, holding opponents to under 65 points per game. That they do so without fouling much is both understandable and impressive. Neither of those things bodes well for the Tar Heels, who, as they always have under coach Roy Williams, love to run the court. When they can’t do that (against Virginia, for example), they struggle.
Clemson also likes to play small. Three of Clemson’s four leading scorers – Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, and Gabe DeVoe – are guards, and the fourth is 6-foot-8 wing Donte Grantham, who has the shooting and ball-handling skills of a guard. That combination lets Brownell spread the floor, opening up space for drives (and the subsequent kick outs to the wings).
Traditionally, that’s opposite how Williams and the Tar Heels like to play. Williams’ preference for two sound interior players (his commitment to rebounding is almost unparalleled) means UNC usually initiates its offense inside-out instead of vice versa.
What will likely determine who wins Tuesday is whether Williams is OK with straying from his traditional method. He did so against Boston College last week, starting wing Cameron Johnson instead of forward Garrison Brooks. That meant UNC started out with a smaller, more perimeter-oriented squad (or as some have deemed it, after the Golden State Warriors’ model, the Death Lineup).
Doing so puts UNC’s five best players – Berry, Pinson, Johnson, Kenny Williams, and Charlotte native Luke Maye – on the floor at the same time while also spreading the floor more. The Tar Heels do lose out some in terms of rebounding in that case, as well as interior defense, but they make up for it in added scoring and ball movement.
If Williams continues his small-ball experiment, and he should, UNC’s chances of keeping the streak alive go up tremendously. But even so, this Clemson team will be the best, most balanced one to visit Chapel Hill in Williams’ tenure.
And after all those miserable bus rides over the years, you can only imagine the party the Tigers would have on the way home if they’re the ones to finally break the streak.