No. 1 North Carolina is accustomed to this situation. Clemson coach Oliver Purnell hopes his 19th-ranked Tigers have grown more comfortable with such games, too.
A season ago, the fourth-ranked Tar Heels blew past No. 19 Clemson 77-55 at Littlejohn Coliseum in what was touted as the Tigers' chance to show they were ready to compete with the ACC's best.
That defeat was part of Clemson's 4-10 slide that followed a school-record tying 17-0 start. With the top-ranked Tar Heels (14-0) again in the way of a fast start by the Tigers (12-1), Purnell doesn't think last year's fold will figure into Sunday night's game in Clemson.
"We certainly go into the game feeling like we can win, feeling like we're playing well," Purnell said.
Clemson easily handled what looked like a difficult challenge at Alabama, 87-61, on Tuesday.
Purnell came into the season setting goals as high as possible, telling the experienced Tigers they were in it to win the national championship. Clemson was later the preseason pick for fourth in the ACC, a lofty spot that has typically meant a berth in the NCAA Tournament -- something the Tigers haven't achieved since 1998. The first part of the season has been Clemson's usual romp to a stellar record. The Tigers have had no more than two losses entering ACC play the past three years.
Just like last season, the North Carolina game will go a long way in proving whether Clemson is a serious ACC threat.
"Normally, you don't necessarily want the best team in the league right off the bat," Purnell said. "But we're playing well right now, maybe playing as well as we've played all year."
A big reason is Clemson's blend of experience and talented youth. K.C. Rivers, a 6-foot-6 junior swingman, leads the team in scoring at 16 points a game and is second in rebounds with 7.3 per game. Forward James Mays is improving from an early season hip injury and is key to the Tigers pressure defense. Plus, freshmen Demontez Stitt and Terrence Oglesby have fit in well with their steadiness.
"We're not thinking about what happened last year," Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds said.