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Depleted Team Must Lean On Young, Willing Competitors

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

By Michael Vega
Boston Globe

November 20, 2007

CHESTNUT HILL – The hint of a smile seemed to crease Al Skinner's face.

The Boston College basketball coach, now in his 11th season in Chestnut Hill, was discussing with a subtle sense of incredulity how amazing it was indeed for the Eagles to pull out a 67-57 victory over New Hampshire in their 2007-08 season opener Nov. 10 at Conte Forum.

It was a feat made all the more amazing by the fact that BC did so without a pair of key starters, junior guard Tyrese Rice and sophomore power forward Shamari Spears. They were serving one-game suspensions for their inadvertent commission of a minor NCAA infraction after participating in an unsanctioned game over the summer.

Even more amazing, BC's eight-man rotation relied upon the contributions of four of its five incoming freshmen, including 6-5 swingman Rakim Sanders and 6-1 guard Biko Paris, who tallied 22 and 19 points, respectively, to lead the Eagles in scoring.

"Under the circumstances, it was going to have to be that way," Skinner said after BC's season-opening triumph. "We kind of anticipated that. Obviously, they're more than capable and more than ready to take on some of that responsibility. Under normal circumstances, I don't think that would happen, but it just goes to show the potential that they have."

As most coaches are well aware, potential can be a double-edged sword.

As the first half of the opener demonstrated, the enormous potential BC's newcomers possess is likely to hover over the Eagles' heads this season like the Sword of Damocles. That much was underscored by the manner in which they built a 20-5 first-half lead, hitting 10 of their first 15 field goals, then proceeded to watch it dissipate into a 28-26 halftime deficit after BC hurried or took ill-advised attempts and wound up missing its last nine shots in a row before intermission.

"It's all new to us coming in," said Sanders, who starred at St. Andrew's High in Rhode Island, where he averaged 21.3 points as a senior and earned the state's Gatorade player of the year honors. "I think that with us out on the court as young players, it's just getting us to learn everything. We're still out there and we're still struggling with plays, not running the right plays. But we're taking everything as a learning experience. Every game, every play, every trip down the floor is a chance to get better as a team."

By halftime, though, it also was painfully evident that neither Jared Dudley, who last season guided the Eagles to a 21-12 record and garnered ACC player of the year honors, nor Sean Marshall, the emotional sparkplug of last year's team, was going to trot through the portal leading from BC's locker room to the Conte floor in a rescue attempt of the young and impressionable Eagles.

In the second half, Skinner knew it was going to be sink or swim for his freshmen.

He was keenly interested in seeing how they were going to respond to the adverse conditions of blowing such a large first-half lead. Skinner knew the underclassmen were going to have to extricate themselves from this honest-to-goodness tussle against a UNH team that was picked to finish last in the America East Conference.

"They're competitors," Skinner said. "They want to compete and they want to play, and that's why they're here, and they knew that they were going to have an opportunity."

So much so, Skinner stayed with the four freshmen, including 6-5 forward Corey Raji of Washington Township, N.J., and 6-10 forward/center Josh Southern of Saginaw, Mich., plus 6-7 sophomore forward Tyler Roche, in a crucial part of the second half. Why would the BC coach disrupt the flow? After all, that group broke a 41-41 tie by going on a decisive 10-2 run to open up a 51-43 lead with 8:28 to go.

So instead of bringing in either John Oates or Tyrelle Blair, a pair of seasoned frontcourt players who could have brought stability to a combustible situation, Skinner stayed with the players he had on the floor.

"Four freshmen and a sophomore," Skinner said, a hint of a smile creasing his face.

The young lineup provided BC fans with an exciting glimpse of what the future – perhaps even the near future – might hold in store for the Eagles in their third season in the ACC.

"What they showed was some mental toughness in making plays and making shots at the end of the game," said Skinner, who always has demanded his players to be tough, mentally and physically. "Our execution wasn't all that we wanted it to be, but they made some plays happen."

Sanders hit a pull-up three-pointer from the wing that gave BC a 54-48 lead. Southern blocked a shot reminiscent of those Sean Williams, a first-round pick of the New Jersey Nets, used to swat in college before he and Akida McLain were dismissed from the team for unspecified violations of team rules in January. Southern then knocked down an elbow jumper that showed his ability to step out and hit an open shot.

Raji, the younger brother of BC football player B.J. Raji, hit an open trey from the corner, doing so easily what he had done at Westwood High in New Jersey, where he averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds as a senior. Then Paris, a clone to Rice in almost every aspect of his game, advanced down the court, pulled up well beyond the arc and knocked down a huge three-pointer that, for all intents and purposes, helped BC clinch its season-opening victory.

"One of the things we've got to concentrate and improve on, as always with young teams, is respecting the offense and believing in it to the point it will work for you," Skinner said. "They just made some plays out of the offense, and they've got to make the offense work for them so it becomes a little bit easier for them. Once they learn that, then you're going to really see some real good play."

Then Skinner, who has taken the Eagles to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments and six of the last seven, revealed a hint of a knowing smile.

Many BC fans get excited when they envision the best-case scenario for this rebuilding team. That starts with Rice, an All-ACC player and one of the most explosive scorers in the conference. It continues with Spears, a promising post scorer whose strength and shooting touch make up for his 6-6 height.

But Skinner's smile on this night came when he talked about his freshman contributors. It was when the winningest (196 wins in 10 seasons) basketball coach in BC history was asked to ponder the future and what it might bring if this group of newcomers can meet his expectations.

"I've always said our young guys, they're learning, they like to learn, they listen, they try to execute," Skinner said. "They try to execute, but they also have a certain toughness that allows them to be pretty good basketball players."

What coach wouldn't be smiling about that?


Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 NA 15-16 None
1999 NA 6-21 None
2000 NA 11-19 None
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
2005 NA 25-5 NCAA 2nd Round
2006 11-5 (3) 28-8 NCAA Sweet 16
2007 10-6 (3) 21-12 NCAA 2nd Round

x – won ACC title

2007-08 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Tyrelle Blair 6-11/242 C Sr.
John Oates* 6-10/255 BF Sr.
Tyrese Rice* 6-1/190 PG Jr.
Daye Kaba 6-4/214 WG So.
Tyler Roche 6-7/220 WF So.
Shamari Spears 6-6/238 BF So.
Cortney Dunn 6-8/215 BF Fr.
Biko Paris 6-1/200 PG Fr.
Corey Raji 6-5/210 WF Fr.
Rakim Sanders 6-5/225 WG Fr.
Josh Southern 6-10/255 C Fr.

* – returning starter

Building Blocks

Jared Dudley is in the NBA. So is Sean Williams, who wasn't around for the ACC portion of last year's schedule. Sean Marshall is gone as well. Left behind to lead a very young team is Tyrese Rice, the scampering point guard who will have to score and score big for the Eagles to have a shot at anything more than just NIT contention. A special player who arrived at BC as a shooter/scorer, Rice actually toned down his style to fit a system with bigger names in 2006-07. He'll have plenty of room to expand his game this season.

Other Key Returnees

Rice and Shamari Spears, who will handle a big part of the scoring up front, missed the opener while serving one-game suspensions for playing in a local summer game (with refs). They are battle-tested in the ACC. The other veterans in the rotation are wing forward Tyler Roche and big men Tyrelle Blair and John Oates. Roche, whose best skills are his shooting and passing, started the first two games without distinction. Neither Blair nor Oates is much of an offensive threat, although Oates can hit an occasional three-pointer. Blair is at his best when he's blocking shots in the post.

Some Introductions

Five freshmen are on hand, and some will have to play a lot. BC fans got early, in-depth introductions to guard Biko (pronounced Beek-o) Paris and swingman Rakim Sanders. Both, especially Sanders, came with advance notice but were even better than advertised early. They combined for 41 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and six steals in the opener. Paris is penciled in as the backup point guard, but don't be shocked to see him on the floor at the same time with Rice. Center Josh Southern also got some big minutes down the stretch in early games. He lost weight into a better body last year. Forward Corey Raji also has shown that he will be able contribute as a rookie, especially on defense. Coach Al Skinner played all four freshmen (and Roche) down the stretch to win the opener against New Hampshire. Forward Cortney Dunn isn't yet ready to help and could redshirt this season.

Also Worth Noting

Paris handled the ball well through 40 minutes of two-turnover floor leadership in the opening win and calmly drained a three-pointer with the clock winding down late. Before that, he did all of his scoring on dribble penetration, which was outstanding. ... Skinner knows that this is a likely rebuilding year, but he appears to be having fun coaching these kids. ... Another key newcomer will spend 2007-08 on the bench in street clothes. Joe Trapani has three seasons ahead at BC after transferring from Vermont, where he was an America East all-rookie selection. The BC people see Trapani growing, both in size and on the court, during his sit-out year. ... Rice made 122 three-pointers in his first two years at The Heights. The school record is 300, set by all-time leading BC scorer Troy Bell, who had 129 treys in his first two years. ... There is some talk that Rice could depart for the NBA after this season, with one year left, but that's not seen as likely at this stage.

Chart By: The BC Insider