By Mike Shalin, Boston Herald
November 15, 2004 CHESTNUT HILL If you ask Craig Smith about the chances of him leaving Boston College early, he just smiles. "I'm just thinking about this season right now," Smith said. "I can't think about anything else. I'm just focused on us getting back to the NCAA Tournament, going to the Sweet 16 and beyond."
Everyone knows there's a chance that the talented power forward will leave BC after his junior year. But everyone also knows that in the back or maybe even the front of his mind, he's also thinking about taking the Eagles into the ACC next season.
As BC enters its final campaign in the Big East, of which it was a charter member, Smith continues his attempt to turn the pain of the final game of last season into a positive and to get into the best playing shape of his life. He doesn't want a repeat of the two-point, six-rebound, 22-minute nightmare he lived when the Eagles fell to Georgia Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Yellow Jackets, of course, continued their run all the way to the national championship game before losing to Connecticut. BC lost to both of those teams last season, by a combined eight points.
"It was like, ëWow, we could have beaten both of those teams,'" Smith said. "We had both of them up into the final minute."
The Georgia Tech loss was the most painful. Smith had to watch from the bench as his former prep school teammate Jarrett Jack ran away with an intercepted pass and flushed BC's season down the tubes with a dunk. Smith is now a lean and mean 250 pounds that's down at least 15 from last year and toned for the first time in his life.
"(The post-Tech pain) never went away," Smith said. "It might have been the worst performance by me, ever, as far as on the college scene."
Smith watched Tech advance game after game and was actually on a flight home to Los Angeles when UConn beat the Yellow Jackets to win the title. Using that as fuel for his fire, he decided to get into the best playing shape of his life.
"He really is in good shape," said BC coach Al Skinner, who has guided his last four teams to a 90-39 record, three NCAA trips and one visit to the NIT. "He's as strong if not stronger, but he's quicker if you can imagine that. This is going to help him defend. How many times did he not play because of foul trouble?"
A preseason All-Big East player, Smith averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds a game last year to earn an All-Big East postseason spot. In two seasons at BC, the 6-7 Los Angeles native has scored almost 1,200 points while pulling down 529 rebounds. He was listed among the 50 preseason candidates for the prestigious Wooden All-American Team and player of the year honors.
Heading into this season, Smith was upset over where people picked his team. The Big East coaches tabbed the Eagles fifth in the 12-team league, behind Syracuse, UConn, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. What still ticks Smith off is the lack of national attention his team is getting, coming off a 24-win season and losing only one (big man Uka Agbai) key contributor. BC garnered just seven votes to place 34th in the preseason AP poll and failed to earn a single vote in the coaches' rankings. In other words, no one seems to know the Eagles are around, regardless of what league they're in.
"It just happens every year," Smith said. "It's like a curse or something. We're overlooked every single year."
Curse? Wasn't another curse recently lifted not far from BC's Chestnut Hill campus?
"We have to hold up our share of Boston," Smith said with a smile, just a few days after the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
This BC team should be strong, especially if any combination of what looks like an impressive four-man recruiting class delivers the way late signee Jared Dudley did last year.
"We have a chance of doing something special this year with our guys," Smith said. "We are capable of winning the Big East. We have a lot of veterans, and the young guys can play."
Clearly, everything goes through Smith. Last season the Eagles' lack of a real outside game hurt the widebody inside, as teams collapsed against him. Agbai, with his nifty 12-foot jumper (he averaged 10.6 points) and team leadership, is gone. A key to the outside game in 2004-05 will be sophomore Sean Marshall, who began last season shooting well from the outside but then started firing blanks. Louis Hinnant also has to be more willing to put the ball up from outside.
Dudley was the real story of last season. Signed in late August out of San Diego (the Eagles spotted him in tournaments and headed him off before he went to prep school), the affable kid went on to average 11.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game to earn a spot on the Big East's all-rookie team. He's 6-7 and not a great shooter, but he always seems to find a way to score, and usually when it counts.
He gets the other forward spot, with senior seven-footer Nate Doornekamp hoping to finish strong as he returns to the starting lineup, where he was during his first two years.
"We have a chance to be really good," Doornekamp said. "We have good balance. We've got a lot of youth, but at the same time we have youth with a lot of experience."
Skinner has a number of different ways he can go with his backcourt. Tri-captain Hinnant (Smith and Doornekamp are the others) will get one of the starting spots. BC also has senior Jermaine Watson and junior point guard Steve Hailey in the mix, as well as Marshall, who can play on the wing in what sometimes is a one-guard set.
Nobody is certain what to expect from the freshmen. Two of them long and lean Sean Williams, a shotblocker (who just turned 18 and started playing basketball late) from Mansfield, Texas, and John Oates, a late signee from Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, are big men. The others, 6-6 Gordon Watt from Evanston, Ill., and 6-7 Akida McLain from Pittsburgh, are typical Skinner multi-purpose guys.
One of the big men likely will end up as a redshirt, but that still would leave 10 players potentially in the mix. Skinner usually goes with an eight-man rotation.
The season-ending loss to Georgia Tech last year was one of two on the season for the Eagles to ACC teams. (They lost at Clemson in the regular season.) This year, an early season visit by Clemson will mark the only regular-season game against the ACC, and Hinnant sees that as a key game for his team.
"Moving from the Big East, we have to go out there and try to beat the ACC teams we play," Hinnant said. "We've got to make our mark for when we get there, as well as beat the Big East teams, because they are really going to be after us. Talking to some of the football players, they told me they hear a lot (of bad things on the road)."
The lame duck Big East season should be an interesting one in Chestnut Hill, as BC fans excitedly look ahead at the ACC but know there's work yet to be done in the Big East.
|1996||NA||19-11||NCAA 2nd Round|
|1997||NA||22-9||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2001||NA||27-5||NCAA 2nd Round|
|2002||NA||20-12||NCAA 1st Round|
|2003||NA||19-12||NIT 2nd Round|
|2004||NA||24-10||NCAA 2nd Round|
* returning starter
Obviously, this team's offense is mostly about Craig Smith, the skilled inside load who's now less of a load (down to a toned 250) and the key to everything that happens with the Eagles. There weren't many people around Boston who thought Jermaine Watson would ever fit into Al Skinner's scheme. A star in high school, Watson was seen as more of a street player who didn't have an outside shot or the desire to be a team guy. Four years later, he enters his fourth year in a successful program. He's not a star nor a great shooter, but he plays hard all the time and is a key to BC's success. Combo guard Louis Hinnant has shown the ability to put the ball in the basket from outside and needs to do that more if the Eagles are to have another 20-win season.
Other Key Returnees
Last year, Jared Dudley arrived late from the West Coast and took the Big East by surprise. Sean Marshall, another West Coast product, started out shooting the ball well but became mired in a shooting slump as the season progressed. Steve Hailey showed some promise. Nate Doornekamp has to replace the departed Uka Agbai's minutes and spirit. In the past, Doornekamp has been a fine offensive player in practice but hasn't been able to consistently bring it into games.
Will they all play? Will one of the four be redshirted? Those are just two of the questions floating around what is expected to be an impressive four-man freshman class. Long and lean Sean Williams, said to be BC's first real shotblocker since John Garris 20 years ago, is just 18 and still learning the game. Chicago-area product Gordon Watt was considered by some the best prep player in Illinois by the end of last year. Akida McLean looks like a Skinner-type, all-purpose player. The staff is hoping to strike the same late-signing gold with big man John Oates that they found with Dudley last year.
Also Worth Noting
Skinner and his staff have become so well-known for finding recruits from under the radar that now when word gets out that BC is interested in a player, his stock quickly rises. With three Southern California players on the roster, BC will visit Anaheim for the Dec. 5 Wooden Classic. The Eagles were picked fifth in the Big East, but they don't have to play any of the four teams tabbed ahead of them twice. While most schools in the Big East said they won't play BC after the Eagles fly to the ACC, BC and Providence already have set up an annual series that will start in Chestnut Hill next season. New St. John's coach Norm Roberts said he'll play BC down the road. Coincidence: BC will have five games against Hockey East opponents two with Providence, plus Maine (the opener), New Hampshire and Boston U. The Eagles will have to fly to only seven road games this year and easily could bus to St. John's, Seton Hall and Rutgers.
CHART BY: THE BC INSIDER