Georgia Tech freshman Chris Bolden figures he got a taste of what it might be like when the Yellow Jackets travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play No. 3 Duke on Thursday.
He was a senior at North Gwinnett and playing against Norcross, the school he’d transferred from, when he heard chants of “Nor-cross Re-ject” throughout the game. He scored 29.
It’s only high school, but it’s something to draw on. Tech will take it, a team taking four freshmen into one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
Cameron is famous for its intimacy, where Duke students are close enough to scratch an inbound passer’s face, not to mention get into his head.
“It’s exciting just because of the tradition and all the rumors you hear about how crazy the student section is,” Bolden said. “I can tell it’s pretty rowdy. (But) people on other teams come in there and perform well. Just as long as we do what we need to do. …”
Tech hasn’t played at Duke in two years because of unbalanced scheduling, so only five of the 15 players on the roster have played there. One is Pierre Jordan, who played one minute at Duke for Florida State in 2010, and another is Jason Morris, who is out with a foot injury.
Center Daniel Miller played that game as a redshirt freshman, scoring six points in a 79-57 loss.
“There’s not much you can really tell them,” he said of these freshmen. “They just have to go through it themselves. There’s just nothing like it. It was just so loud.”
Miller blocked five shots in 25 minutes that game. He was doing more intimidating than being intimidated. His secret? He actually enjoyed the atmosphere.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Miller, who grew up a Duke fan. “It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever played at. The fans are all into it. They’re all hanging over the court, playing a really good team. It’s an awesome time.”
It probably didn’t hurt that Miller wasn’t the player Duke fans targeted during pregame warm-ups. They reserved the boos and sarcastic cheers for walk-on McPherson Moore’s every make and miss. Miller said the two got a chuckle out of it.
Perfect strategy, if you ask former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, whose Hokies always seemed to play Duke tough at Cameron. It took a half-court shot by Duke’s Sean Dockery to beat Virginia Tech in 2005, their second trip to Cameron after joining the ACC. The Hokies won there the following year in overtime.
“First and foremost you’ve got to embrace it,” said Greenberg, now an ESPN analyst. “If you look at Cameron as a burden, if you look at it as a holy grail, I think that’s a mistake. Playing in Cameron is one of the great things about college basketball and the ACC.”
Greenberg used to bring his teams in a day early to shoot free throws, go over plays and look up at the banners. Then he’d talk about it at dinner.
“I’d say ‘All those guys whose names are in the rafters, we’re not playing against those guys,’” Greenberg said. “’Those Final Fours? We’re not playing that team. That one team? We beat that team.’ I would try to make light of it and get them to understand that they have a great history but tomorrow is all about the present, is all about the opportunity.”
Greenberg went out to the court during warm-ups. He’d laugh at things students said. He encouraged his players to do the same.
“If you’re shooting and you miss one or two, they’re about to say something, pump fake a shot, pull it back,” Greenberg said. “I think it’s fun. Would you rather have that or quite honestly, play like at Boston College where no one is there.”
Ron Hunter relished the chance to open Georgia State’s season at Cameron, and the ESPN exposure, even if it meant his son R.J. heard “Daddy’s boy” chants virtually every time he touched the ball. It prepared him for what other students would copycat.
“He hears it all the time now,” the Georgia State coach said. “It’s nothing like the Duke crowd, but now you hear it. You can’t even get a chuckle out of anymore.”
Hunter’s assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie, a former player and assistant coach at Georgia Tech, recorded Duke students’ chants off YouTube. The Panthers practiced to the recordings for a week and a half. Once they got to Cameron, Hunter said he didn’t bother with the whole “Hoosiers thing,” walking onto the court early. They just went out and played.
“Honestly, I think the biggest advantage they have is the mystique of it,” Hunter said of Cameron. “Once you’re into it, good players especially can tune things out.”
Tech coach Brian Gregory is counting on it. It’s why he’s not making a big deal out of his first trip to Cameron in his second season at Tech. The Jackets will hold a shootaround the day of the game like they do everywhere they go.
“You’ve got to enjoy the opportunity to play in a great place like that, but when the ball is tossed up, you’ve just got to play,” he said.