Oliver Purnell says his team won't apologize for starting the season well and will continue to do so. Dino Gaudio says his team is one of the best in the country. Both men have reason for optimism going forward based on what has transpired so far in the 2008-09 season.
Two of the nation's final trifecta of unbeaten teams will step onto center stage in the upstate of South Carolina on Saturday in the biggest game in Littlejohn Coliseum in over a decade.
Wake Forest has history on its side; its storied tradition of hoops history was replaced with a few mediocre teams over the past five years. Now arguably the most youthfully athletic team in America will try to make a statement on the road in the ACC.
Clemson has the edge in experience; Purnell has built a solid program that has continued its upward climb every step of the way since his hiring in 2003. The senior leadership of K.C. Rivers has been key to this team maintaining focus this season.
Several factors will influence the outcome of this game, but there is no question that it will be a great battle between teams that have proven their respective worth all year long.
Key Matchup: Wake's Jeff Teague vs. Clemson's Demontez Stitt
Teague has been sensational over the past couple of weeks, torching BYU, North Carolina, and Boston College in succession. It will be a difficult task for Stitt to contain a combo guard with the athletic ability of Teague. But keeping him out of the paint will need to be the focus of the entire Clemson defense, as he can be pretty creative with the ball.
Key Stat: Turnovers
Wake Forest has shown a propensity to turn the ball over this season. With Clemson's pressing style designed to wear opponents down over an entire 40-minute game, mental mistakes could be costly. On the flip side, the Tigers haven't been exactly consistent with turnovers this season, as they tend to hang onto the basketball in spurts. Whichever team can minimize costly turnovers down the stretch has the edge.
X-Factor: Littlejohn Crowd
The students have been hyped up for this game at levels. Some students stood outside to get tickets all day Friday, then were turned away because there weren't enough. At a school that has historically used basketball season as a springboard to football spring practice, the crowd noise for this game should be deafening, as the game has been sold out for weeks. How an inexperienced Wake Forest team responds will be huge for the Demon Deacons.
The combination of experience and balance will put the Tigers over the edge. They haven't lost at home in a year and they have shown resilience throughout the season. Wake's run this year has been wonderful, but they don't have a ton of big-game experience as a group. I look for the crowd to give Clemson a significant edge and for Wake to wear down facing the relentless Tiger pressure. Should be a terrific show in Tiger Town on a chilly January afternoon.