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Finishing Stretch Has Added Meaning

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




February 20, 2007

CHESTNUT HILL – Boston College beat Florida State twice this season. But as the 2006-07 campaign entered its final two weeks, the Eagles were trying to keep from becoming Florida State.

As in the FSU of last year.

If you know anything about the ACC, you know that the Seminoles were 9-7 in the conference last season. They beat Duke, lost at Duke by a point in overtime, lost to North Carolina by a point, had 19 wins in the regular season, etc. They were left out of the NCAA Tournament.

That FSU team didn't play a tough non-conference schedule. But those Seminoles didn't lose to Vermont or Duquesne, either.

That's part of the baggage this BC team is toting around. That and having two rotation players, center Sean Williams and forward Akida McLain, booted from the team, leaving the roster much thinner.

BC entered the week of Feb. 12 in first place in the conference, No. 21 in the country. The Eagles faced the biggest back-to-back home games in the history of the program, with icons Duke and Carolina coming in. They had the national spotlight and "College Game Day" for UNC, with committee members and the rest of the college basketball world watching.

The Eagles lost both games. Suddenly, BC was stuck at nine league wins and going to Virginia Tech. On paper, you would think a nine-win team from this conference, this year, when the ACC is regarded as the toughest in the country (just look at the number of lower teams beating upper ones), you'd think that nine wins would do it.

But senior Jared Dudley, with eight games left and six ACC wins in the bank, said his team needed to win four more to be safe, and he may have been right. The closing slate isn't an easy one – at Virginia Tech, Clemson (a team that hammered BC by 20 down there) at home, and then at Georgia Tech.

Pessimists have noted that the Eagles could take a five-game losing streak into the ACC Tournament, that they could finish 9-7 in the league, just like FSU, which didn't lose to Vermont or Duquesne. Williams and McLain (previous suspensions) didn't play against Vermont, and Dudley missed the Duquesne game, but those were still bad losses.

FSU also lost its first game in the ACC Tournament last year, which certainly didn't help in the eyes of the committee. BC, of course, could lose the last five in the regular season and do well at the league tournament, which would take care of things, but do the Eagles really want to have to do that?

Remember this, too: BC, which had an RPI of 25 heading into the UNC game, didn't have to go far into its archives to find the last time it was in a situation like this one.

In 2003, the Eagles were 18-11 at selection time, 10-6 and co-leaders of one of the Big East's two divisions. Troy Bell was the conference player of the year, and BC won six of its last seven in the regular season and split a pair of Big East Tournament games.

Believe it or not, the Eagles went to the NIT. They had lost to Northeastern that year. These selection folks remember things like that.

This season, Dudley is seen by many as the favorite to win the ACC player of the year award, even though he took a step back by missing all of those free throws against UNC.

Could it happen to BC again, leaving Dudley in the same position as Bell, in terms of a senior letdown for one of the school's all-time greats?

Before the UNC game, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said, "I still think (the Eagles) have to win another game in this league for the knockout. I thought last year Florida State would be a lock at 9-7 in a conference like the ACC, and they stayed home because their pre-conference schedule wasn't super."

So is BC in the position of possibly staying at home because of Vermont and Duquesne? Here's a coincidence: Ron Everhart, the coach of the Northeastern team that kept BC out in 2003, now coaches Duquesne.

DEFEATS WON'T DEFINE DUDLEY

You never have to apologize for losing back-to-back games to Duke and Carolina.

Yes, Duke had lost four in a row and was out of the Top 25 for the first time in 380 games. But it's still Duke, and the McDonald's All-Americans who knock annually at Coach K's door certainly asserted themselves that night. BC didn't play well until it was too late, and Duke ran the Eagles out of their own gym, even scoring on a five-on-one break at one point. The Blue Devils just seemed to be playing on a smaller court.

BC fought long and hard to try to get by UNC. Dudley was hit by foul trouble for the second straight game. But, on the night he became BC's all-time leader in minutes played, the senior combined with Tyrese Rice and Sean Marshall to bring his team back. Then, all three missed huge shots from the field and the foul line, and their team drifted toward that dreaded bubble.

"It's not like the season is over," Dudley said. "We've still got to go and still win at (Virginia) Tech."

Or against Clemson at home. Or at Georgia Tech. Suddenly, the team leading the ACC on Valentine's Day morning had something to worry about.

Almost hidden in the doubt were the losses of Williams and McLain. Williams, as good a shotblocker as there was in the country this season, and McLain, an athletic body, probably would have made a difference.

Skinner hasn't really talked about it since the day they were ousted. He doesn't believe in talking about what's not available to him. But the fact is, the Eagles were legitimate ACC title contenders with the two troubled players. Because they weren't around, and despite claims that BC became more of a team without them, you have to believe that their absences made a major difference, especially against teams such as Duke and UNC.

Despite an 11-point game (only five shots) against Duke, and then the late failures at the free throw line (and on the three-pointer that could have tied the game in the closing seconds) versus UNC, Dudley has taken his place among the elite to ever play the game at Chestnut Hill.

The three games he missed this season with a foot injury – the only games he hasn't started since arriving at BC – will depress his final totals, but his play had people talking about him as if he's the best player ever at The Heights.

Meanwhile, Marshall made his 126th straight start in the UNC game. He was poised to break the school record for starts (127), shared by Craig Smith and Uka Agbai. Those guys were on that 2002-03 team that had to go to the NIT.