It’s one of the most remarkable records in college basketball.
Clemson has never ventured into Chapel Hill and left with a victory over North Carolina (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU/WatchESPN). Most games haven’t been close, either. The Tigers have come within single digits on just eight occasions.
It’s the longest streak of its kind. And every season, the thought becomes that surely it can’t continue forever. At some point, the Tar Heels have to get caught slipping and the bounces have to go Clemson’s way. That’s covered somewhere in the law of averages, right?
Apparently not. Until this point, Carolina has escaped every time the Tigers looked to have the upper hand.
It happened when Rick Barnes, now the coach at Texas, brought a No. 2-ranked Clemson squad to Chapel Hill to face the reeling and young Heels. UNC started off ACC play 0-3 in the 1996-97 season and Barnes seemed poised to make program history.
In what turned out to be coach Dean Smith’s last contribution to extending the streak, the Heels won 61-48 and would eventually end up in the Final Four.
Carolina probably felt the most anxiety about keeping the streak alive in its 8-20 season in 2001-02 -- the only losing season since Smith’s first at the helm in 1961-62. But even that Matt Doherty-coached team closed out Clemson 96-78 on senior day. That win seemed to signal that, even at its worst, UNC was still good enough to beat the Tigers when the Heels were at home.
The teams first met in 1926, and, in the modern era, the Tar Heels have rarely been as vulnerable as they are this season. They’ve already had three losses at the Dean Smith Center, including an 83-80 setback to Belmont.
The Tigers raised eyebrows by upsetting Duke at home, although that enthusiasm was tempered Tuesday after they lost by 33 at Pittsburgh.
Clemson does boast the nation’s top scoring defense, allowing just 53.5 points per game. If the Tigers can keep the game played at a slower pace in the half court, North Carolina has proved that it doesn’t fare well in those situations.
But can the Tigers, who have heard more than they want to hear about the streak, overcome their wretched history in Chapel Hill long enough to complete a victory?
“I’m sure I’ll allude to it,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell told The Charlotte Observer. “I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not the center point of your speech, of what you’re trying to do to win the game. ‘Let’s be the first team.’ You’re not doing that.”
Maybe he won’t. But chances are Carolina will. For a team whose effort has sometimes been questioned, the Tar Heels will try to summon a top performance to avoid becoming the first team in school history to lose to Clemson.