CONWAY — Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis has not been bashful over the last week in calling this the biggest game the Chanticleers have ever hosted.
On Wednesday night, Clemson comes to town for what has been touted as the marquee matchup of Coastal’s debut season inside The HTC Center. It’s the rematch of an in-state clash that last year went right to the buzzer. It’s a rare opportunity for the Chants to host a program from one of the traditional power conferences before a sold-out home crowd. And, well, there’s a number of other reasons.
“There’s not been a bigger basketball game [here] in men’s basketball than what’s going to happen Wednesday night,” Ellis said. “And the reason for that is it’s Clemson. It’s an ACC school who is playing very well, but they’re also in our state. And I’m very appreciative to the fact that they would come here and play. But there’s not been a bigger game. Last year, the LSU game was the biggest game, but to have a team of the caliber of an ACC team and an SEC team and that’s what’s coming in here, that says a lot for where our program has grown.
“Now we’ve got to come in and this not just be a fanfare – we’ve got to try to do what we did last year and try to win these type [of] basketball games.”
Last year, Coastal topped LSU at home and then defeated Clemson on the road as then-senior forward Chris Gradnigo scored on a tip-in at the buzzer for a 60-59 win.
Of course, a lot has changed since then.
After going 16-15 last season and finishing seventh in the ACC, Clemson is off to a 6-3 start while also playing competitively in losses to Gonzaga and Arizona. Coastal, having won 75 games over the last three seasons, is now in full-on rebuilding mode and off to a lackluster 3-5 start while struggling to overcome its youth and inexperience.
“This is going to be about as tough a game as we’re going to play,” Ellis acknowledged.
But also an opportunity he’s appreciative to have.
Ellis, a former Clemson coach, and current Tigers head coach Brad Brownell have developed a friendship over the last several years, which is perhaps the biggest reason why this game is on the schedule.
“A big part of it is Cliff, to be honest with you,” Brownell said. “I don’t know if I would have done it necessarily [otherwise]. With Cliff having been a long-time coach at Clemson and a guy I got to know and a friend, we knew we were going to play some [local] teams, we played some teams in the state with some 2-for-1 games, so it’s something we decided to do with Cliff. We knew he was going to have some good teams, we knew it was going to be difficult games, but just kind of a way to, oh I don’t know, support him a little bit and thank him for all he’s done at Clemson and at the same time put our guys in some good games.”
Brownell, now in his third season at Clemson, said he sought the opportunity to ask Ellis some questions about his own experience coaching the Tigers, and the two have since shared time on a Nike-sponsored coaches trip and played some golf together – including a round last spring near Ellis’ house in Florida.
“We have a great relationship,” Brownell said. “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a little bit of an unsung coach if you will in our business in that he’s won a heck of a lot of games and had a lot of success at several different schools and maybe isn’t quite as well known as some of the others who have won 500 games or what not. He’s done terrific work certainly at Coastal where he is now, but also at Auburn and at Clemson. ... I think coaches know who he is and know what kind of record he’s had and what kind of success he’s had. I don’t know if the general public knows that quite as much, but he’s certainly well respected in our profession.”
Ellis won a program-record 177 games in 10 seasons at Clemson and led the Tigers to their only ACC regular-season championship, in 1989-90, and continues to follow the program from afar. He said this week that Clemson has “got a special, special place in my heart” and that he continues to root for the Tigers – whenever they’re not playing Coastal.
As for Brownell, Ellis also took the opportunity to compliment his counterpart in advance of this clash Wednesday night – and again to thank him for the opportunity.
“Brad is a friend. I have two daughters that live in Clemson, and they know the Brownells,” Ellis said. “I’ve told the Clemson people this guy is a class act. ... I said, ‘Brad, I’d like to play. I’d like to bring our team back to Clemson, and I’d like for you to come. We’re going to have a new arena, and I’d like for you to be a part of it.’ And he [did] not hesitate. And I’ll never forget that. I won’t forget LSU, I won’t forget Clemson, I won’t forget Ole Miss – the teams that are in the upper echelon that are willing to come play here because it just has never really happened. So it’s a growth in our program that I’m proud of.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.