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.
Boston College No. 4/Minneapolis Beat Pacific (88-76, 2 OT); beat Montana (69-56); lost to Villanova (60-59 OT)
MIXED EMOTIONS TOP
DURHAM - The way Josh McRoberts finished the 2005-06 season was both very good news and - maybe - very bad news for the Duke basketball program.
It was good news because without the strong play of the freshman forward, the Blue Devils would not have won their seventh ACC championship in eight years and made another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
It was bad news because McRoberts' often-spectacular performances highlighted the talent that has some pro scouts drooling. It raised a vital question for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: Will McRoberts return next year to anchor what is going to be a very young team, or will he leap at the chance to be an NBA lottery pick?
Don't let anybody tell you he knows what McRoberts is going to do - not even McRoberts. It's a decision he'll make after the season.
Obviously, rumors are going to fly in such situations. Asked directly about the NBA at a press conference before the ACC Tournament, McRoberts gave the standard line, basically: "I'm not thinking about that now."
But is he? There's a rumor floating around Duke circles that McRoberts told one of his tutors recently that he won't need him next year. But there also are those who insist that the talented kid wants to return next season to be "the man."
Indeed, that's certainly Krzyzewski's plan. The Duke coach will lose four seniors out of his seven-man rotation after this season, including All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. Coach K would have a reasonable chance of rebuilding an immediate contender if McRoberts returns to join point guard Greg Paulus and wing guard DeMarcus Nelson. The Blue Devils could use that trio as a firm foundation for their strong freshman class (wing athlete Gerald Henderson and wing shooter Jon Scheyer are particularly prized) - plus three talented but little-used holdovers from this year's freshman crop - to build upon.
That might not be a national championship-caliber team. But with a presumably improved Paulus (Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt recently said that, in his experience, most point guards make a big jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons) feeding the gifted McRoberts down low and on the perimeter, it's not unreasonable to project Duke to have the same kind of success Coach K summoned from a similarly youthful team in 2003, or that North Carolina's Roy Williams managed this season after losing seven top players off his national championship team.
One of those seven at UNC was freshman forward Marvin Williams, a sixth man for the Tar Heels who was drafted second in last spring's NBA draft. He's an apt comparison to McRoberts in that he was drafted more on potential than on actual accomplishment. And while McRoberts isn't quite as universally admired by pro scouts as UNC's Williams was in 2005, there seems little doubt that he'd be taken relatively early in what's shaping up to be the weakest draft in modern times. He's currently projected as the fifth pick in this year's draft by nbadraft.net, ahead of teammates Redick (10) and Shelden Williams (15).
McRoberts' potential was very much on display during the ACC Tournament. It's not so much numbers - he averaged 13.0 points and 6.7 rebounds over the three wins - but his show-stopping plays. Against Boston College, he ripped down a defensive rebound, raced the ball upcourt with the dribble until he reached the foul line, then delivered a perfect behind-the-back pass to Williams for the dunk. Or there was the play where he rebounded his own missed free throw and exploded for a one-handed dunk follow, drawing another foul. Or his two-handed reverse slam off a feed from Redick.
It was a far cry from McRoberts' play in the first two months of the season, when the prep All-American often appeared passive and indecisive. He hit double figures in points just five times in his first 20 games. He's done it 10 times in his last 14.
"In the last month, he's gotten a feel for what it takes and he's gotten comfortable," Krzyzewski said. "When kids all of a sudden grow up like that, it's kind of neat."
Duke's second-round NCAA victory over George Washington may have been the culmination of that process. McRoberts showed almost the full range of his skills in the game: scoring (14 points on 4-of-5 shooting), rebounding (season-high 13 boards), defending (two blocks and a steal) and ball-handling. Coach K even used the 6-10 forward to bring the ball up against the Colonials' very quick full-court press.
"It really helps having Josh back there," Krzyzewski said. "He makes great decisions, and he can handle the ball like a guard."
About the only skill McRoberts didn't show off against George Washington was his shooting range. He hasn't shot from the perimeter often this season, but his three-point accuracy (50 percent; 5 of 10) is the best on the team, at least statistically.
McRoberts' overall freshman numbers (8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 61 percent FG, 51 assists, 41 blocks, 39 steals) compare very favorably with the numbers Shelden Williams posted as a freshman (8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 51.6 percent FG, 15 assists, 52 blocks, 23 steals). Maybe that's why the senior big man was so laudatory about his freshman compatriot in the post.
"The way that Josh played (against GW) was an amazing lift," Williams said. "For him to be a low-post presence and also getting his hands on defensive rebounds was a big boost for our basketball team. Seeing his face, being very energetic and into the game, was an amazing lift for our basketball team today. He's finally putting steps together and becoming more consistent."
Williams ended with the hope that McRoberts would play as well in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament. That hope is indeed vital to Duke's short-term future.
But the long-term reality is that the better McRoberts plays - and the more Duke accomplishes - the less chance there is of him returning to help Coach K rebuild next season. McRoberts very easily could follow in the footsteps of Corey Maggette and Luol Deng, freshmen who jumped to the pros after helping earlier Duke teams reach the Final Four. Team success often is part of these decisions; Roy Williams is convinced that both Marvin Williams and Sean May would have returned to college this season had UNC fallen short of the NCAA title in 2005.
For his part, Coach K left San Antonio after his 2004 Final Four loss to UConn convinced that Deng would return for his sophomore season to anchor another title run in 2005. But family pressure pushed the versatile forward into the draft.
Nobody knows the pressures that will be pushing and pulling at McRoberts this spring. But he certainly has a big choice to make, both for himself and for the immediate future of the Duke basketball program.
Tournament Update 3.23.06:
Duke No. 1/Atlanta Beat Southern (70-54); beat George Washington (74-61); lost to LSU (62-54)