March 21, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL - With all of the things the Boston College basketball team accomplished this season - ACC runner-up, another 25-win campaign, Al Skinner becoming the program's all-time winningest coach, etc. - none of it would have meant much if the Eagles had returned from Salt Lake City without two NCAA Tournament victories.
That's right; BC had a monkey on its back the size of Boston's Prudential Center. It had been 12 years since the Eagles had reached the Sweet 16. It had been forever since the program had gotten there with Skinner as the coach.
Skinner arrived on the BC campus in 1997. He inherited a Big East champion, but also a program in turmoil. The Eagles had been racked by a front-office squabble that left then-coach Jim O'Brien heading to Ohio State, their best player (Scoonie Penn) going with him, and an entire nationally ranked recruiting class gone.
Skinner, a former pro player, did things his way and brought the Eagles back. He won, won and won some more. But he never won more than one game in the NCAA Tournament, and that's really what it's all about, isn't it? Especially in a pro town, where the Eagles are fighting for any attention they can get, only a Sweet 16 will attract big-time media coverage.
BC won the Big East title in 2001 but went out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles won 20 the next year and then had to play Texas (another loss) in its own backyard in the first round. The team missed the tournament and settled for the NIT in 2003, even losing in the second round there.
The Eagles won 24 games in 2004 and went out in the second round against Georgia Tech, the eventual national runner-up. Then came last year - and yet another dismissal in the second round, this one against No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
That made five second-round exits and a first-rounder in the last six trips to the Big Dance, and that set the stage for the tension-filled trip to Salt Lake City.
SMITH, HINNANT FINISHING IN STYLE
The two-man senior class of power forward Craig Smith and point guard Louis Hinnant was 94-34 in four years at The Heights after this season's ACC Tournament. But much of that success would have been forgotten without two wins in Salt Lake City.
BC survived. The Eagles needed double overtime, including two huge Smith free throws with four seconds left in the first OT, to beat Pacific. They then man-handled Montana, largely on the strength of an incredible first-half performance by Smith inside.
Thanks to a first-round upset of No. 5-seeded Nevada, BC had to beat only the No. 13 and 12 seeds in Salt Lake to reach the Sweet 16. Losing to one of those teams would have made things even worse as Smith and Hinnant left school.
Now, of course, it's all different. Many people continue to talk as if the Eagles can win it all. After losing to BC, Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak said, "They deserved to win, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them in the Final Four."
Obviously, a lot will have to happen for BC to get that far. But even a failure to get there wouldn't erase what this team has accomplished. The Eagles finally capped a successful season, in this case their first in the ACC, by making it to the Sweet 16.
The seniors led the way. Smith tied Danya Abrams' school record of five straight double-doubles through the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with three at the ACC Tournament and two more at Salt Lake. He totaled 110 points (22 per game) and 69 rebounds (13.8 per game) in the five postseason contests. He was a monster. He was scoring. He was passing. He was cleaning up the offensive boards.
"Whatever it takes me to do, I'll do," Smith said.
Said Skinner: "He was a beast in there. He was carrying two and three guys on his back getting offensive rebounds (eight of his 16 on the day). Craig made them work extremely hard in defending him on the interior. ... That is what a senior does; he puts you on his back and carries you."
Two days earlier, Smith had saved his BC legacy by not missing one of those two free throws against Pacific. Amazingly, with Montana players on his back all day, he didn't shoot a free throw for the entire game against the Grizzlies.
While Smith was special, the real story of what happened with this team over the last two weeks revolved around Hinnant.
Long the quiet distributor, known for not shooting and taking care of the ball as well as anyone, Hinnant emerged as an offensive threat in Greensboro. First, after setting a career high with 11 assists in one game, he had a career-best 20 points in the championship game loss to Duke. He continued to be an option at the NCAA Tournament, thriving in situations where cool freshman Tyrese Rice took over at point guard.
Oh, and, of course, junior forward Jared Dudley was just doing his thing. And he was the only BC player with hair.
Dudley wasn't in the room when team barber/swingman Sean Marshall shaved everyone's head. Dudley was visiting his mother and, when the Eagles took the floor for the game against Pacific, he still had his trademark cornrows. Dudley wasn't about to shed them for the next game, either, but the rest of the team was cleanly shaved.
"I don't want to do anything to affect my game," Dudley said. "Cutting my hair would affect my game, and I don't want to do that. My look's my thing, and I couldn't stand having a bald head."
OBSTACLES: TRAVEL, SCHEDULE, FATIGUE
The Eagles weren't thrilled at getting a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, especially with a North Carolina team it had beaten twice (both in North Carolina) getting a three. But the BC people were even less thrilled with where they had to go and when they had to play in the first round of the Big Dance.
After flying home from Greensboro on the night of that classic ACC final with Duke, the Eagles learned they were going to Salt Lake City. That meant a Monday departure for a team that had just played three games in three days. The Eagles also learned they had to play at 10:40 a.m., local time, and against a No. 13 seed that didn't have to travel nearly as far as they did to get there.
The biggest thing in all of that for Skinner was the Thursday game. He thought that a team having to play Sunday should have the right to not play again until Friday. Then, to top it off for the weary club, BC had to play 50 minutes to get rid of Pacific.
The Eagles flew home Saturday night. This week's trip to Minneapolis was a lot more desirable, especially since they would be getting a break from a Saturday afternoon game all the way to Friday, at a spot closer than Salt Lake City.
The win over Montana was the 28th of the season for the Eagles, establishing a new high for the program. BC won 27 in 2000-01. It also gave BC seven wins in its last eight games and 12 in the last 14, and it left the Eagles at 17-3 since starting their new life in the ACC with an 0-3 conference record.