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Boston College's Time On Top A Product Of Poise, Toughness, Skinner

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Mike Shalin
Boston Herald

January 31, 2005 BOSTON — They started the season as the Rodney Dangerfields of college basketball, a 24-win team from last year that received little respect in the first 2004-05 Associated Press poll and absolutely none in the coaches' rankings. But by January, Boston College, the black sheep/lame duck of the Big East, was getting all kinds of respect.

In fact, three days before their Jan. 29 game against Georgetown, the Eagles — who will join the ACC family next season (starting with football) — were one of only three undefeated teams in Division I basketball. They had risen all the way from the ranks of the unranked to No. 8 in the country.

Three undefeated teams. Duke, Illinois and BC. Before the season, you could have gotten a lot of people to say the Blue Devils might be there, based on a combination of name recognition and a forgiving early schedule. Similarly, many would have offered a theory that the Illini could make it, as long as they got past their early tussle with preseason No. 1 Wake Forest.

Boston College? No way. The topic never came up.

But there the Eagles were, 18-0 entering February, and even their leader didn't seem to notice at times. Clearly he did, but he wasn't letting on that anything special had taken place.

"I don't think we're overly concerned about that," BC coach Al Skinner said, after a 79-73 win over pesky St. John's in New York on Jan. 22. That's when BC went to 16-0 and 5-0 in the Big East, both records no BC team had achieved previously. "Eventually, people will learn to appreciate us, if that's what they decide to do. It's not important now. It's more important in March.

"What we're just trying to do is have success in the league. What are we in the league, 5-0? That's really what we're concentrating on now. (Five straight Big East wins) works for us right now, but we have to continue to get more."

Skinner's players emerged from their locker room that night looking as if they'd just won a game in December. No big deal.

Junior forward Craig Smith, the star who doesn't act like one, allowed that it was "pretty cool" to be in that situation. Jared Dudley, in the midst of following a freshman year that saw him surprise everyone with a sophomore year that's even better, said "we knew if we came in and played our game we'd get the victory." But there was no look, or talk, of great accomplishment, again showing that there's a focus with this team on something bigger.

"There are a lot of teams — very good teams — with one loss or two losses," Skinner said. "Right now, (18-0) is a nice place to be, but there's a long way to go."

The coach had just watched his team record another "Groundhog Day" win. You remember the Bill Murray movie, where the same thing happened every day, right? Well, BC fell behind by nine points in the first half at St. John's — just as it had done so many times previously — before taking control late in the half and never trailing in the second stanza. With the victory over the Red Storm, then another close one (78-75) over Providence, the Eagles won their 11th straight Big East game, their ninth straight road contest and moved to 6-0 in the conference.

This is the same team, of course, that struggled to beat Maine in its season opener. The Eagles fell behind at UCLA and then played very well to beat a team that then went on to better things. They had to go into overtime to beat Holy Cross. They battled to beat Boston University. They went into double overtime to elude Yale. They trailed Kent State by 18 points in the first half, by 14 in the second, and led only once — on Smith's basket at the buzzer.

BC trailed by seven at the half at Connecticut, then blew a late 10-point lead and still won. The Eagles trailed Providence by 12 with 15 minutes left in the teams' first meeting. They trailed at West Virginia and used an 18-0 run at the start of the second half to pull away. They trailed Villanova by six with less than two minutes to play and scored the final seven to win. Then they rallied at St. John's.

"Obviously, we'd rather not play that way," Skinner said. "But that's who we are. That's just the way we're doing things. But we're winning."

Before playing St. John's, which already had upset N.C. State and Pittsburgh (and was 2-0 against the ACC with a win over Virginia Tech, too) this season, Skinner noted that the Red Storm had to feel "comfortable" playing BC.

"We don't blow people out," Skinner said. "They know we play a lot of close games."

But Skinner also would tell anyone who would listen that these close games against lesser opponents would pay off down the road. And he was right, as evidenced by the Jan. 5 Big East-opening win over defending national champion Connecticut in Hartford.

The Eagles played another close one — at St. John's — and, even though the kids were ticked off to be playing on campus and not at Madison Square Garden, and even though there were only some 2,000 people in the stands on a stormy night, and even though they trailed early, they did their Groundhog Day thing and found a way to win No. 16.

Just as his Villanova counterpart Jay Wright had done after his late loss to BC, rookie St. John's coach Norm Roberts noted the toughness and poise of these Eagles. Skinner's top six players form most of the same group that ended last year 11-3, meaning they were 29-3 in their last 32 games before hosting West Virginia (Feb. 1).

"He's got poised guys who know how to play under pressure, who know how to play in tough environments, who don't get rattled," Roberts said. "When you've got guys like that, you've got a chance to be real good."

Before that, Wright said, "That's why they're the No. 9 team in the country. You're not No. 9 in the country just because you've got good players. You're No. 9 in the country because you play every possession to the bitter end. That's what they did a great job of (against Villanova)."

Providence coach Tim Welsh, preparing for a second meeting with the Eagles in 18 days, said, "They remind me of what Pittsburgh was doing the last couple of years. They can beat you with solid, solid, solid. You take one thing away from them, they beat you with something else. You take Craig away, and they beat you with Dudley, or someone else (such as freshman Sean Williams, who hammered PC in the first game).

"They're veteran. They're solid. They're tough. They're confident, and their confidence is growing. Early on, they were good and they won. Now they expect to win, and that's the kind of team that plays well in March."

It's easy to look at BC and say the Eagles revolve around Smith, who recently was tabbed as one of five midseason All-Americans in a column by respected Sporting News college basketball analyst Mike DeCourcy. But this all really revolves around Skinner, the no-nonsense, no-frills, no-hype coach who carried a 107-39 record over the last four and a half seasons into the Georgetown game.

"He's even keel," said Welsh, the only men's basketball coach in the Big East who's slated to play BC next season. "He has a simple formula — play hard, play tough and play together. A lot of us in this business try to over-complicate the game, but that is a great winning formula. People say they're going to have a tough road in (the ACC), but they'll do fine in that league, too, because he's there."

Skinner, if you've forgotten (or didn't know), arrived at Boston College in 1997. The BC program, which had just won the Big East, had imploded under the weight of a battle between then-coach Jim O'Brien and the director of admissions at the school. Skinner jumped to the Eagles from Rhode Island, where he had built a team that became an NCAA force for Jim Harrick the following year. O'Brien left for Ohio State and took star guard Scoonie Penn with him. Others also departed, and the program was in shambles.

Many predicted it would take years for good things to return to the BC basketball team, if that would happen at all.

But it did happen — and quickly.

By the 2000-01 season, Boston College won 27 games and the Big East again. Last year, the Eagles went 24-10, won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and then lost — basically on one play — to a Georgia Tech team that ended up in the national championship game. They lost one key player (senior leader Uka Agbai) but returned the other four starters, plus another, center Nate Doornekamp, who had started the year before. Still, they went unnoticed in the polls. They failed to receive even a single 25th-place vote from the coaches.

They were picked by the Big East coaches to finish fifth in the league — not a bad choice, considering that the two previous national champions (Syracuse and Connecticut) were in front of them, along with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Fifth in the Big East is like fifth in the ACC; there's not even the slightest hint of embarrassment in either spot. But the lack of respect drove these kids, and it probably didn't upset Skinner, who was able to use the developments as a motivational tool.

The lack of respect for these Boston College kids actually started for all of them way back in high school. There's only one player on the roster — senior super sub Jermaine Watson — who was ranked as a top-100 player in high school. Skinner and his staff have become masters at finding prospects under the radar. (E.g., how did Smith ever get past UCLA and Southern California and out of Los Angeles?) It even has reached the point that when other coaches hear about BC being interested in an unheralded kid, they suddenly become intrigued, too.

Skinner starts two sophomores — Dudley and Sean Marshall — who played a ton as freshmen. While Smith, in the best shape of his young life, always has been the key guy for the Eagles, the offense does get spread around, and different heroes emerge all the time. In the Villanova game, Dudley had his career high of 25 in the first half and finished with 36, the most points by a Big East player for the year to that date.

"It doesn't matter who does it," said Smith, who scored 12 and 10 points in the back-to-back wins over Villanova and St. John's, and didn't seem to care.

Said Welsh: "That's not rare for the great players. You look at a Hakim Warrick (at Syracuse) or a Smith or a Ryan Gomes (at Providence) ... they're winners first. They understand, ‘I've gotta have help, I've gotta have support.' People want to say that if you stop Craig Smith, you can beat Boston College. But he knows other people have to do it."

Against St. John's, Smith had trouble getting the ball down low in his office. When he did get it, he didn't force things, taking only seven shots (and scoring a season-low 10 points) in 38 minutes. But Dudley had 19, three other BC players hit double figures, and Doornekamp had nine.

Through it all, Skinner had mostly the same demeanor while undefeated as he did the year he suffered through a school-worst 6-21 record. He's a coach, and that's what he's at BC to do — coach. Yes, winning is important, but this is a guy who is realistic enough to know the coach can do only so much, and the same can be said about the players.

"Al does a good job, man," long-time assistant Ed Cooley said. "The people don't appreciate Al. The dude is calm, and he just lets the kids play. He's amazing to me. I'm like, ‘How the hell does this guy keep his sanity?' I'm going nuts on the bench, and he's calm. I think that's why, down the stretch, people listen to Al. He's not yelling and screaming at them for 38 minutes. He's not cursing them out for things they did wrong, and I think that's why when it comes time to listen, they listen."

And they play.

With the focus turning to the ACC next season, there are those who wonder if Smith will be around to join his teammates on the new venture. But his game certainly still needs work — he doesn't do a whole lot from outside, and he may not be big enough (6-7) to do much inside damage in the NBA — and the general feeling is that he'll be back. But a coach never knows who gets inside a player's ear, so Skinner has no way of knowing.

If Smith comes out, Skinner will deal with it calmly, just as he deals with everything else. But, by talking to Smith, you get the feeling he's excited about the new world that awaits. He's excited about playing the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world, something that would allow him to complete the circle from being an unwanted and overweight high school kid in Los Angeles to playing in not one but two of the greatest basketball conferences in the land.

But that's next year. For now, there's this season. Smith forever is talking about how the people in the Big East would like anything other than BC winning the conference and celebrating with a going-away party.

"We just want to win this league," Watson said, "and go from there."

Skinner was right when he said there's a long way to go. But these kids already have accomplished so much — the 18-0 start, winning at UConn, beating four teams (Clemson, UConn, West Virginia, Villanova) that had beaten them in their only meeting last season, etc.

It's reaching the point where you probably don't want to doubt what these Eagles might be capable of down the road at tournament time.

Brick: On Sampson's Son, Others

In other basketball recruiting news (please see our column on pages 12-13 and 18-19 of this issue for more), numerous prominent underclassmen continued to place ACC programs at or near the top of their most recent college lists.

One of the best high school prospects we ever scouted was 7-4 superstar Ralph Sampson, who later was a three-time national player of the year at Virginia and an excellent NBA player until slowed by knee problems. Now we're intrigued by the reputed promise of his son Ralph Sampson III, a 6-10, 200-pound freshman (15 years old) who transferred in early January to Huntsville (AL) Butler from Duluth (GA) Northview. Called by Butler coach Jack Doss "the best 15-year-old I've ever seen," young Sampson (like his dad) is agile but very thin, has a reliable jump hook and handles the ball proficiently. At this writing, he's played in four games for Butler and is averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds. Also an outstanding student, Ralph III has attended the Georgia Tech basketball camp in recent years and already has been watched in Huntsville by coaches from Alabama and Mississippi. He'll begin a weight program as soon as his season is over.

Ishmael Smith (top 150), a 5-11, 155-pound junior PG at Concord (NC) Central Cabarrus, already has been a starter for three seasons. After helping lead the Forest City (NC) Heat to the state AAU 16-under championship in the spring of 2004 and performing well last summer at the Nike Underclassmen Hoop Jamboree, Smith has terrorized opponents of 14-1 Central Cabarrus this season by averaging 24.3 points, 7.8 assists and five steals per game. A jet up and down the court, Ishmael has been scouted in games by coaches from N.C. State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Miami, Charlotte, Xavier, UNC Wilmington, St. Bonaventure and Appalachian State.

Tracy Smith (top 75), a burly 6-7, 245-pound junior BF from Detroit who's in his second season at Durham (NC) Mount Zion Christian, is already a load for defenders to cope with around the basket. On a strong 13-2 team that features 6-7 senior WF Brandon Rush (No. 4 may be a tad high) and some other big-timers, 16-year-old Tracy is averaging 15 points and six rebounds per game. Reputedly a strong student, he's being recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Duke (no offer), UNC (no offer), Georgia Tech (no offer), Louisville, Arkansas and others. He has some scholarship offers but has not yet provided the names of those schools.

Edgar Sosa (top 100), a net-stripping 6-2 junior PG/WG at unbeaten Manhattan (NY) Rice, is having an excellent season, although he's often overshadowed by blue-chip teammate Curtis Kelly (No. 19), a 6-9 junior BF/C who oozes talent. Sosa's current averages are 19 points and six assists per game, and he's now hearing from N.C. State, Connecticut, Louisville, Miami, Boston College, St. John's, Seton Hall, Manhattan and others.

Blake Wallace (top 100), a 6-7, 190-pound junior WF at Anaheim (CA) Servite, is averaging 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and four rejects per contest for an 11-7 team. A good student with a 3.2 GPA, Wallace has been eyeballed in practices or games this season by coaches from UConn, California (offer), Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Hawaii (offer). He also likes Syracuse, Georgetown, Wake Forest, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Gonzaga. Blake is a fine shooter and finisher who leaps well but needs to improve his strength and ball-handling.

Outstanding Eric Wallace (No. 3 in the Class of 2007), a 6-6 sophomore WF at Kernersville (NC) Glenn, continues to show why he's widely regarded as the best young prospect North Carolina has produced in several years. An exciting leaper/finisher with lots of elevation and a high release point on his fairly effective perimeter jump shot, Eric is so promising that he already has been offered scholarships by UNC (he's visited unofficially on several occasions), nearby Wake Forest, N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and many others. His is a name you likely will not forget.

Michael Washington (top 75 in the Class of 2006), a 6-9 lefty BF who transferred last fall from McGehee (AR) High to Cleveland (TX) Heritage Christian and was reclassified as a junior (rather than a senior), has worked hard this season to improve both his basketball and his academics. A mobile, face-the-basket player with a smooth perimeter stroke, Washington has been impressive enough that coaches from Arkansas (offer), Oklahoma State (offer), Oklahoma (offer), LSU (offer), Georgia (offer), Alabama (offer), Miami (no offer) and North Carolina (no offer) have expressed serious interest.

Tre'von Willis (top 100), a 6-3 junior WG/PG at Fresno (CA) Washington Union, reportedly is averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists per game for a 15-4 team. An outstanding driver who attacks the rim with seeming impunity, Willis performed quite well last summer for loaded EBO/EA Sports, which won the championship of the Adidas Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas. He has early scholarship offers from UCLA, Southern California and hometown Fresno State, while Miami, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Oregon, Washington, Kansas, Connecticut, Oklahoma State and others also are showing considerable interest.

— Brick Oettinger, ACCSports.com

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