The casual fan probably thinks the University of Miami men’s basketball team, with its No. 3 national ranking and 11-0 Atlantic Coast Conference record, should have an easy time beating the middle-of-the-pack Clemson Tigers on Sunday night.
But the casual fan likely has never set foot in Littlejohn Coliseum. Clemson is known primarily as a football school. But its basketball team has a considerable home-court advantage because of the energy and ruthlessness of the Littlejohn Coliseum crowd.
The 10,325-seat arena was built in the mid-1960s, and the design is such that players feel like the fans are right on top of them. It is comparable to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tigers have a history of pulling off upsets at Littlejohn. They upset No. 1 Duke there in 1980, beat No. 1 North Carolina there in 2001 and knocked off No. 3 Duke in 2009. ESPN has rated it one of the toughest places to play, and voters in an EA Sports survey ranked it the second-toughest place to play in the nation.
“It’s really loud there, and their fans get into it,” said UM senior center Reggie Johnson, who is very familiar with the place. “I’d say it’s one of the hardest places I’ve ever played.”
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That said, if anybody can block out the distractions, it’s these Hurricanes.
UM has nine road wins this season, which ties for second-most in the nation. It is the only major-conference school with that many road wins. They are 6-0 in ACC road games, with wins at Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Boston College, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State and Florida State.
The Canes (20-3) were tested at FSU, but came away with a 74-68 win. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin, a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, led UM with 22 points. Thirteen of those points came in the final seven minutes, when the Seminoles had clamped down and tied the score. UM coach Jim Larranaga benched Larkin early in the game and gave him a little pep talk, and it worked.
“I said to Shane, ‘You are guarding Michael Snaer. He’s an All-American,’ ” Larranaga said Friday. “Shane understood he had to guard him a whole lot better than he was doing, and he stepped up. He was terrific. He and Durand Scott both played outstanding games.”
Larkin wasn’t the only one who needed a push early in that game. Larranaga said that during the first timeout, he challenged his team to step it up. “We were losing 11-2 after four minutes, and I told them, ‘If we keep playing defense like this, they will score 110 points.’ ”
The coach, who admitted he was exhausted Friday after late nights of game preparation, is expecting another tough battle Sunday.
The Tigers (13-11, 5-7 ACC) are coming off their first conference road win, a 56-53 victory at Georgia Tech. They held Tech to 15 first-half points and 17 percent shooting in the first half. Their previous game was also close, but went the other way. They lost 58-57 to North Carolina State.
Larranaga said of the Tigers: “They are well-coached team, and are very tough defensively. They’re very good at offensive rebounding, and have good size. We hope to take advantage of our experience.”
The last time these teams played, Jan. 18, 2012, Miami won 76-73. But UM is 1-5 at Littlejohn Coliseum. And there is no doubt that crowd will be louder than ever against a Hurricanes team ranked No. 3, undefeated in the conference, and getting loads of national attention.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best game,” Larkin said. “If anything, being No. 3 means we have to play even harder than before. The ACC is a great conference, top to bottom, and we can’t take anything for granted.
“Duke almost lost to Boston College. Anybody can beat anybody.”