South Carolina took a step Friday at Colonial Life Arena toward establishing a men’s basketball rivalry with Clemson. It might have been a baby step, but at least it was a step.
The two schools annually have played a spirited – and sometimes heated – rivalry on the football field decade after decade, but never have developed much of a competitive back-and-forth on the basketball court.
There are reasons why USC vs. Clemson men’s basketball games have mostly drawn disinterest from both fan bases. First, it is not football. Only in basketball hotbeds such as North Carolina and Indiana do rivalries on the hardwood outshine those on the football field.
It did not help matters that USC left the Atlantic Coast Conference following the 1971 season, making USC-Clemson in men’s basketball much like Florida-Florida State and Georgia-Georgia Tech in the same sport. Rivalries are difficult to develop and endure when the two programs play in different conferences.
Overriding those factors is the reality that seldom have both programs been at their peak simultaneously, and the rivalry has been dominated by one program or the other most of the time.
In the 62 seasons since 1953-54, when the ACC was formed, 17 times have both programs finished with a winning record in the same season. Two times – 1997 and 2009 – have both teams won 20 or more games in the same season. And three times – 1989, 1997 and 1998 – have both teams concluded their respective seasons by playing in the NCAA tournament.
There is a general sense that it all might be changing under coaches Brad Brownell and Frank Martin. Both are highly respected in the business and understand the challenges they face at their respective programs.
Brownell’s first four teams averaged 18.5 wins per season, appeared in one NCAA tournament and a season ago reached the semifinals of the NIT. But Clemson is not the kind of program that can afford to lose a player early to the NBA, as it did when K.J. McDaniels turned pro following last season.
Instead of fielding perhaps his strongest team at Clemson, Brownell played Friday’s game without McDaniels, who at the same time was scoring 6 points for the Philadelphia 76ers and is considered an NBA Rookie of the Year candidate.
Nevertheless, Brownell’s teams can be counted on to play solid defense, and he has a history of developing players. Besides McDaniels, a look down the Clemson roster is to see player after player whose game improves from one season to the next.
Meanwhile, USC appears to be coming into its own early in Martin’s third season. The Gamecocks are playing outstanding basketball, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
They are playing the kind of defense that could project them into the upper third of the Southeastern Conference standings. It is the style of basketball that Martin established at Kansas State and has been slowly developing at USC.
USC blanketed Clemson on Friday, limiting the Tigers to 15 points in the second half on 5-of-28 shooting (17.9 percent) that included one 3-pointer that connected on 11 attempts.
As a result, USC coasted to a 23-point victory, its third against Clemson in the past 11 meetings and seventh in the past 21 matchups. Before all that, USC had dominated the series with an 81-62 record.
The only real heydays of the series probably occurred when Frank McGuire was fielding nationally elite teams in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Clemson was a downtrodden program through most of those seasons, yet the rivalry was fueled by McGuire’s antagonistic ways.
Whether intentional or not, McGuire made certain there was a dislike between the two programs.
Following Friday’s game, Brownell and Martin both talked of how much respect they have for each other and for the other’s program. Don’t they know, that is no way to flame the fires of what could be a budding rivalry?