On a December Friday, as I was leaving Colonial Life Arena, I remarked to my brother how that was the worst I had ever seen Clemson play in person. Now, let's don't forget that I was in Littlejohn when we lost to Winthrop earlier this season. I was there last year when our offense went completely lethargic against FSU, and the Seminole family section led a war chant that echoed throughout Littlejohn as Tiger fans filed to the exits. I was still convinced that our loss to South Carolina was the worst. Until last Saturday.
Saturday night's demolishing at the hands of North Carolina is probably the worst I've seen Clemson play at all. It was definitely the worst performance of the Tigers in games I had attended, but I cannot recall a game in my 21 years of Tiger basketball fandom that was worse. Some of you old timers could probably point to some worse games, but this one had to have been up there. No one expected us to beat with the Tar Heels, but we were only a 7.5 underdog, and we had beaten the #19 (now #23 in the AP poll) ranked Arkansas Razorbacks at home. In years past, we've pulled upsets on the likes of Duke and UNC at home, and even given then some tough fights on the road. That 2008 double OT loss in Chapel Hill is still painful. I don't expect Clemson to beat the big boys in basketball every year, but I at least expect us to give them some sort of a competitive game.
At halftime the Tigers had 17 points. Clemson football scored 22 in the first half vs UNC, and had 12 in one quarter, almost as many as the hoops team scored in one half. When Dale Gilbert announced that fans with a ticket could get a free haircut if the Tigers score 65 (I know, weird promotion), the entire arena burst out in laughter. Somehow in the second half the Tigers were able to but up 33 points to finish with a somewhat respectable 50 points.
Games like this, the loss to South Carolina, the losses to Winthrop and Gardner Webb, and barely scraping by against the likes of High Point and Robert Morris are hard to swallow. Even harder to swallow when you can remember how the Tigers used to be not too many years ago. Oliver Purnell led the team to three straight appearances from 2008-2010. Clemson defeated Duke in the 2008 ACC Tournament and went toe to toe with UNC for the title in Charlotte. As Purnell could never get Clemson over the hump in the NCAA tournament by winning a first round game, fans started to grow frustrated. We'd love to have that problem now.
Last year we (me included) rushed the court for an NIT victory of Belmont to go to the finals in New York. It was a big win and a good reason to celebrate, but it's hard to believe that just a few years ago being in the "Not Invited Tournament" would be something we would snub our nose at. Now, it's a stretch for us to make. That was the first postseason appearance for this year's senior class. That's right. This class has not experienced March Madness, something that Demontez Stitt's class experienced 4 times. Something that briefly became routine enough that we wanted more. Clemson has regressed in basketball.
It's hard to know where the blame lies. Getting top talent has always been an issue at Clemson. We consistently feed off the kids that are overlooked by more traditional basketball powers. I don't know the this crop of players is overall that much less talented than some of the teams from years past. There isn't a Trevor Booker or KJ McDaniels on this team, and maybe that's the issue. I don't think that Brad Brownell is a bad coach, but this is not what I'd expect from a coach who just earned a big extension. We seem to lose players each year to transfer under Brownell. I don't if that's solely just guys looking for more playing time or if there's something more, but it is something to note. Maybe the renovations at Littlejohn will help. We can recruit better, prepare better, and be better. I hope that something clicks in the next year or so because it's tough to see where this program is.
A few years back, we could run with anyone in the ACC. Students would fill up the student section for games against not just Duke and UNC, but for Maryland and NC State. EA Sports named Littlejohn the 2nd toughest place to play in America, right behind the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill. Seeing those home games on ESPN was every bit as loud and energetic as watching a game that was being broadcast from Cameron Indoor Stadium, the benchmark for loud fans. Now, the student section is half full most of the time.
The UNC game last Saturday would've probably had a full student section had it not been during break, but the energy just isn't the same as it used to be. I hate writing a doom and gloom article, because everything is there for Clemson to return to success. But something needs to happen. I'm not quite sure what, but something has to happen to restore the Tigers' roar on the hardwood.