January 24, 2007
CHESTNUT HILL Jan. 20 could have been a big day for the Boston College basketball team.
The Eagles, who started the season ranked No. 15 in the country and then moved to No. 14 after their first win, had dropped off the charts with four non-league losses two to Vermont and Duquesne, and both of those at home.
But with a 5-0 ACC start and a trip to No. 19 Clemson waiting, BC had a chance to get back into the Top 25 with a win over the Tigers.
It never happened. News that came out mid-week all but ensured that it wouldn't happen so soon, and it may not happen again this season.
BC coach Al Skinner, finally fed up with the antics of junior center Sean Williams, the best shotblocker in the conference and maybe the country, and junior forward Akida McLain, finally kicked the two headaches off the team. The announcement came a day after the Eagles easily handled Miami at Conte Forum for their fifth straight win in conference play.
Skinner, speaking the morning after, wouldn't say what it was that put the thing over the edge, that finally ended it for a pair of veterans who had been suspended for a combined total of 30 games and arrested twice. He's not allowed to talk about things of that nature, because federal law protects the privacy of the kids, even these kids. All he would say, amid rumors ranging from a failed drug test to some sort of shenanigans on campus, was that Williams and McLain were involved in "separate incidents."
Skinner might not have talked about it even if he could. He doesn't talk about the past much. When he lost Craig Smith, Louis Hinnant and a pair of assistant coaches to head jobs, he looked ahead, not back. That's his way.
But looking ahead at the rest of the season with this team doesn't produce the same level of optimism many had in October. Looking ahead at 2007-08 without Williams, Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall amid talk that top-ranked recruit Rakim Sanders might not make it academically isn't pretty, either.
Williams was going to leave anyway. The staff felt he would have been gone to the NBA after last season had his personal campaign not been shortened at the start by his drug arrest and subsequent suspension from school.
That was why the Eagles brought in transfer Tyrelle Blair, a big kid who played two years at Loyola-Chicago and developed a reputation for blocking shots. At the time, the BC coaches probably had no way of knowing that Blair was a marginal ACC player or, more importantly, that Williams would develop the way he did.
For all of his troubles, Williams worked at his game and his body. A bigger Williams came back this season with the ability to put points on the board, to hit free throws, to score. He had broken his own school record for blocked shots, and he did it quickly. The coaches knew he wouldn't be coming back for another year of trying to hack this school thing.
Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, one of the assistants who left BC after last season, said Williams was a future lottery pick. Many others agreed.
Now Williams will have to try to enter the NBA draft as someone who got kicked off his college team in the middle of a promising season, someone who was so difficult to handle that even an even-keeled guy such as Skinner couldn't take it anymore.
In the end, Williams made his own life tough, but he made BC's life tougher.
The Eagles went down to Clemson and got blown away. That may have happened anyway. The Tigers were a 17-win team playing at home.
"We were 5-0 in the ACC, and it would've been nice to be 6-0," Dudley said, "but you're not going to go undefeated in this league, as you've seen so far."
A key stat at Clemson? Blocked shots, BC: 1. That block was by little point guard Tyrese Rice.
McLain played a total of six minutes this year. He was suspended for the first nine games, returned against Kansas, hit the Eagles' first two baskets and sprained an ankle. He came back and played two minutes against Miami, and then his BC career was over. He really could have helped as a long body, with unusual skills that were tough to defend, off the bench.
It wasn't as if these guys were suspended for the rest of the season. They were, well, gone entirely.
"It was just something I needed to do," Skinner said. "Hey, we have rules and you have to abide by them. It's just that simple. When you don't, this is what happens. No one's ever really happy with it, but you gotta have some order."
Asked if Williams and McLain were surprised when they got the news, like little kids denying that anything was wrong, Skinner had to laugh a little when he said, "Isn't that always the way?"
He didn't want to talk much about it. There was work to be done, without Williams and McLain.
"We have to move on, and I have to focus on the people that are here," Skinner said. "I don't work with (what might have been). I work with what I have. I always have. I don't afford myself the luxury of what possibly could have happened. I don't work that way. My mind doesn't work that way. I'm really comfortable with what we have. There's no denying what Sean brought to the program, but we'll go on with what we have.
"As I will tell my players today, hey, I love the game. I come to work every day to make it better. That's what I will do today and tomorrow. That's just the way it is, and I want the people in that room to feel the same way."
Williams and McLain didn't feel that way, at least not in their actions. So they are gone. And BC's chances of winning the ACC may have gone with them.
GOOD NEWS (SPEARS), BAD NEWS
With Williams gone, freshman power forward Shamari Spears stepped into the starting lineup. That's the good news.
A 6-6, 245-pounder, Spears looks to be the next in a long line of "finds" for Skinner and his staff. What Spears lacks in height, he makes up for with long arms and surprising athleticism. He has good quickness and gets off the floor well, and at 20 years old (he attended high school in North Carolina for two years, then prep school in New Jersey for three) he's far more physically mature than most rookies. Spears had 14 points and six rebounds at Clemson.
Spears likely will be fine this season, and in the long run he might be a very productive ACC player. He's just not Williams.
The more alarming development, with the exits of Williams and McLain, is that the bench will be very, very thin. Skinner actually was set to play nine guys, with Blair earning some floor time even with Williams there, and Skinner almost never plays nine guys. Now the coach is back to six, maybe seven.
Blair's line at Clemson might have been a sign of things to come: 17 minutes, all zeroes, except for three fouls and a turnover.
After sophomore wing guard Marquez Haynes and Blair, the only other scholarship players on the bench are freshman guard Daye Kaba and freshman forward Tyler Roche. Neither appears ready for ACC play, so it could be a seven-man rotation, with the top five carrying 95 percent of the weight, the rest of the way. One more personnel problem would be devastating.
BC now is coming home to play Florida State, which had beaten a Virginia Tech team that toppled both then-No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Duke. Then, the Eagles have to go to Duke. The Blue Devils and UNC are coming back-to-back at home. There are two games against Virginia Tech waiting, a visit by Clemson, a trip to Georgia Tech, a Florida trip to Miami and FSU.
At Clemson, all the right things were said, after the Tigers filled the basket with nine three-pointers, seven in the first half. Cliff Hammonds went 5-for-6.
"Overall, our defense wasn't that good," Skinner said. "It didn't matter who was on the floor. No one individual was going to make a difference today. Our overall defense was just a problem. We were not consistent on the defensive end. We're just going to have to get better."
"You lose a great player, a great defensive player who means a lot to a great defensive team," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said, "it does make a difference."
Purnell was right. Williams certainly was a difference-maker. And getting himself kicked off the team was the difference between a potentially great season and an unpredictable one for the Eagles in their second year in the ACC.