CLEMSON, S.C. -- It shouldn't be much of a surprise that two unbeaten Atlantic Coast Conference teams are squaring off in the league opener.
But Sunday night's game between four-time ACC champion Duke and Clemson, the ACC's basement-dweller for the past three seasons, isn't the clash of titans people expected this early in the season.
No. 3 Duke appears to have plenty going for it. The Blue Devils (8-0) have won 13 games in a row against Clemson and are poised to take the top spot in the rankings with a win.
But a closer look at the two teams shows a lot of similarities. Neither have had a powerful non-conference schedule as their coaches tried to slowly warm them up to ACC play.
Duke has played only one game outside of North Carolina, an 84-73 win over UCLA in Indianapolis, hardly the hostile environment they will face as the Tigers (9-0) play for the first time this season in front of an expected sellout crowd of 10,500 at the renovated Littlejohn Coliseum. Clemson started this season at the 5,000-seat Anderson Civic Center.
"For us that will be an amazing experience to have to go in there and see if we can play well against them," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The $31 million renovation of Littlejohn Coliseum has made a lot of aesthetic improvements, but the biggest change for the Blue Devils and Tigers will be the new seats on the floor level, full of screaming students.
"It will be loud," forward Chris Hobbs said. "I love how the fans are on the floor."
Clemson's non-conference schedule hasn't been any harder than Duke's. The Tigers are 4-0 against Big South teams, and the only marquee win on the schedule is a 58-51 victory over Cincinnati. They have gotten very little national respect, still well out of the Top 25 despite being one of only five undefeated teams left in Division I.
But it sure beats last season, when Clemson suffered home losses to Winthrop and Yale.
"It's a great opportunity for us," Edward Scott said. "But on the same side, who ever would have thought we would be 9-0?"
Scott is a big reason Clemson is off to its best start in seven years. Scott leads the team in scoring and assists, as Clemson has balanced its offense by pounding the ball inside to Hobbs, Ray Henderson and Olu Babalola.
"The chemistry is so much better this year," Henderson said. "We are getting along so much better."
Several players have said the team fought among themselves the past two seasons with some Tigers jealous of how the offense always seemed to go through Will Solomon two years ago and troubled by the team's lack of effort a season ago.
The challenge for Duke has been a little different. The Blue Devils are trying to mesh one of the nation's top recruiting classes with three of the best returning players in the ACC in Chris Duhon, Dahntay Jones and Daniel Ewing.
Scott said even with the new faces, he doesn't see much difference.
"This is a great team. And they are all still young, so it's scary," Scott said.
But Scott also gets some respect from the Blue Devils. Duhon said Scott is one of the best point guards in the ACC, if not in the country.
"I think he's a little bit underrated," Duhon said.
Clemson coach Larry Shyatt said the key to the game will be to keep Duke from running the floor.
"If they are able to score easily in transition, it will be a long night for us," Shyatt said.
Shyatt said he is not trying to overhype the game to his players. "That's the beauty of this league. This won't be the only spot or high-octane opportunity we have," he said.
Krzyzewski feels much the same way.
"Maybe we'll grow up a lot down there or maybe we'll just get shot out of there," Krzyzewski said. "We're going to try to prepare our kids for a very difficult game."
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