On Saturday, Clemson fans celebrated a big win over traditional power Duke by rushing onto the Littlejohn Coliseum floor. Around the nation, onlookers smiled in appreciation.
On Tuesday, Indiana fans did the same against third-ranked Wisconsin to celebrate its first victory in 13 tries against the Badgers. The same nation turned its nose up at the Hoosiers’ court-storming exercise.
So what was different about these two circumstances? On the surface, not very much at all.
Both victorious teams were unranked. Both were matched up against ranked opponents expected to prevail in the matchup. Both have been beset with questions about what kind of team they can become given some roster limitations.
It seems like a double standard—at least, until you realize exactly who you’re watching.
In basketball, Indiana has everything. It is the flagship university, the flagship program, in arguably the nation’s most passionate basketball state. It has a handful of national championships and a host of other accomplishments that would be the envy of the vast majority of schools around the country. Fans are loyal to a fault, supporting the program through thick and thin.
By comparison, Clemson has nothing. It has never been to the Final Four. It has never won an ACC Tournament title. It doesn’t send players to the NBA, or even to the all-conference team. Fan support dwindles for no reason, to the point that plans for a new arena include fewer seats than the current structure.
Schools like Indiana are supposed to beat schools like Clemson, not storm the court against them. In contrast, schools like Clemson are supposed to rush the floor when they get the chance to prevail against a blueblood program. It’s the expectation.
Now, Wisconsin is not Clemson. Bo Ryan has done a marvelous job with that program over the years. It was ranked third in the country heading into Bloomington, one of only four unbeaten teams remaining in Division I college hoops. Its team and program are nationally respected, so I see the jubilation to some extent.
But there are two kinds of programs: those who storm the court and those who are stormed upon. Indiana is part of an elite fraternity of basketball powerhouses who become the biggest game on every schedule. Under normal circumstances, you don’t rush the floor at Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, Michigan State, Connecticut, Arizona, and Syracuse. Save that for the wannabes who relish the chance to take down Goliath.
There are always exceptions to the rule. That’s why making rules about acceptability on this issue are tricky. Half-court shots, buzzer-beaters, extenuating circumstances, legitimate achievements—all of those things can trigger an emotional response, even from a blue-blood program.
A few years ago, I was alright with Indiana rushing the floor in a similar victory. Coming off of the Kelvin Sampson atrocity, the Hoosiers’ program was decimated. From 2008-09 to 2010-11, Tom Crean was a combined 28-76. The 2011-12 team was talented but unproven, supposedly the pinnacle of years of tireless recruiting and development in the shadow of sanctions.
That team faced top-ranked Kentucky at home and won at the buzzer on a Christian Watford three-pointer that I heard in a middle school classroom moments before I was to emcee a beauty pageant. (Yes, I do beauty pageants on occasion.) I watched the finish later and the memory of the students emptying onto the floor like a pool being drained will be forever ingrained in my memory.
That was fine, even though Indiana should never rush the floor. The reason is that Indiana wasn’t Indiana. The years of extreme famine made the program a shell of itself. But the people never left, not even when the Hoosiers were losing by 30 or 40 to innocuous conference foes, and now they had something to celebrate.
When Clemson beats Duke, it feels that way. I remember being on the floor after 74-47. It’s a great feeling, one that doesn’t come around often.
But I also remember one game late in the Oliver Purnell era, when the Tigers picked up a close win over a quality conference opponent (I can’t recall which one) and the students remained in their seats. It impressed me because the expectation had been set. Simply winning big games wasn’t an anomaly anymore. It was the rule.
As a Clemson fan and graduate, I can only hope the Tiger basketball program gets to the point where people criticize fans for storming the court. Right now, it’s expected after big wins.
I don’t want to be the program that storms the court. I want to be the one who gets stormed upon, the one who draws the big crowds, the one who gets the other team’s best shot, the one who has what other teams envy.
I’m sure Brad Brownell feels the same way.