Latest News

Tigers look to advance, Terriers ready for national spotlight in tournament

One team has a history, the other hopes to make it.

Playing in East Region games 1,000 miles apart, the Clemson and Wofford men's basketball teams come to the first round of the NCAA tournament today with an identical purpose - to shake up the status quo.

Clemson (21-10) faces Missouri (22-10) in Buffalo, N.Y. It will be Clemson's 10th tournament appearance and third straight under coach Oliver Purnell.

Southern Conference champion Wofford (26-8), the smallest school in the field, plays Wisconsin (23-8) in Jacksonville, Fla.

A member of NCAA Division I for only 15 years, this is Wofford's first "dance."

"A few years from now somebody's gonna recognize the name -- Wofford," said football coach Mike Ayers, swept up in the euphoria that's turned the campus in Spartanburg on its ear. "Yeah, I remember them from March Madness. You were that little school that could."

Favored by 11/2 to 2 points, Clemson has an 8-9 NCAA tournament record in nine appearances and once reached a regional final. Yet despite 394 career victories in 22 seasons and five previous NCAA tournaments at three schools, Purnell has never won.

"The big deal for us is getting past that first round," he said. "The past two years we haven't done that. We expect, just like the last two years, that it's going to be a close game."

With only a six-hour bus ride from campus, Wofford could have a substantial following. The school filled 550 of the more than 800 ticket requests and hoped to snag more with fans from Wisconsin, Temple and Cornell facing long, expensive trips to Jacksonville.

Similarly, Clemson fans shivered at the thought of Buffalo in March and plane tickets that ran up to $1,000. The minimum allotment of 350 was offered first to IPTAY donors. Ticket manager Travis Furbee said he heard from a number of alums in Upstate New York and Canada who intend to be at the game, but the last of the allotment didn't move until after sales were open to the general public.

Where Clemson has experience and exposure with nationally prominent basketball, football and baseball programs, this is a rare and precious opportunity for Wofford.

When the football team played in the FCS semifinals in 2003, it was Wofford's first time on national television.

"Even though that was some national exposure, this is a national splash," said athletic director Richard Johnson. "In every major media market in the country in the week leading up to the tournament there's a bracket. Every office pool that's printed has your name on it. I would think that's the kind of exposure where people are seeing Wofford, maybe for the first time, that's big."

Winning the conference tournament for the first time and earning an automatic spot in the Big Dance validates the school's decision to enter Division I in 1995.

"There were a lot of folks that thought it was ludicrous to talk about championships at Wofford, to be quite frank," Ayers said. "At the same time we felt that given the opportunity to go out and recruit the right guys, we felt all across the board where we could be successful."

Among the concerns was that to be competitive would require lowering admission standards to a rigorous liberal arts college of 1,450 where the average SAT ranges from 1,140 to 1,350 and one of five students are athletes.

"Not only are we not taking a lesser student, we've got better students. Better students that want this education and the opportunity to play at a very high level," said basketball coach Mike Young, in his seventh season after 13 years as an assistant on Johnson's staff.

"To get to this point in 15 years is pretty incredible."

Wofford shouldn't be intimidated. Under Johnson the program began to schedule heavyweights every season -- anybody, anytime, anyplace. This season alone the Terriers played at Pittsburgh, Georgia, Illinois, Bradley and Michigan State and winter tournaments in Santa Clara, Calif., and Las Vegas.

The two principle goals are preparing for the conference schedule and spreading the Wofford story, which is unique.

Where else does the former college president serve as an assistant on the football staff?

"What we've done up to this point -- playing in this tournament has taken it to another level, given us an opportunity to share the story," Young said. "We've been able to raise profile of the college."

The benefits are frequently subtle and slow to show results, but Johnson explained what happened after the football team played on ESPN the first time.

"A young man watching in Coeur d'Lene, Idaho, saw our offense, went to the computer and looked us up," he said. "He ends up coming here and was our starting quarterback when we went to the playoffs again in 2008.

"So that's the kind of spin off you get."

Bottom line for either, Wofford or Clemson, this is the ultimate return on the season's investment.

"This is the time of year you want to be playing, this is the tournament you want to be playing in," Purnell said.

"You set out at the beginning of the year that this is one of your goals -- to have a chance to compete for a national championship, and here we go."

  Comments