December 5, 2006
CHESTNUT HILL -- "A work in progress." That's what Boston College basketball coach Al Skinner has been calling his team, which suffered early losses to Vermont (at home) and Providence to tumble out of the Top 25.
The BC team picked to finish third in the ACC was 2-2 after four games. Something had to be done.
An upturn started when all-conference forward Jared Dudley led the way to a win over Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Then, the Eagles flew to Amherst, Mass., faced an ever-improving Massachusetts team in the annual Commonwealth Classic and won there, too, in front of the first UMass sellout in almost six years.
"A work in progress."
Remember, the Eagles, who recorded 28 wins in their first year in their new conference, lost Craig Smith to the NBA and steady guard Louis Hinnant to graduation. (He's playing pro ball in Europe.) The pair left as the winningest senior class in BC history and took 3,075 points, 1,411 rebounds and 745 assists with them. In Smith, BC had four years of a player who commanded the attention of every team the Eagles played, and the steady Hinnant came on at the end of his senior season to become a real offensive threat.
Then, to start this season, BC suspended troubled junior big men Sean Williams (two games) and Akida McLain (nine) for unspecified reasons, in just the latest trials and tribulations for both at the school. The team's depth, and attitude, took a hit.
So, you can see why the start of the year was tough for the Eagles. They beat New Hampshire in their opener but then lost the two games before winning, at home, against Rhode Island to start what was a three-game winning streak after the win at UMass.
Dudley led a team meeting the day before Thanksgiving, similar to the one the Eagles held after losing their first three ACC games last year. Fellow senior Sean Marshall, who needs to be more consistent in his final year, followed that up with e-mails to all but one of his teammates (he didn't have Williams' address) to tell them how special he thought they were and what had to be done.
"I wanted it to be from the heart," Marshall said. "I've learned to love these guys, and I got a little emotional when I was writing it. But, hopefully, I just showed how much I love them and how we should play like a family on the court."
But it still had to be done on the court.
"If we're going to compete in the ACC," Marshall said, "we're going to have to get better, and we're going to have to improve."
For the second straight year, the Eagles were set to begin ACC play with a Sunday night December game against Maryland, this one at home. (They lost last year's opener en route to that 0-3 introduction to the conference.) BC also has a trip to Kansas coming up before Christmas. McLain is expected back after that.
The way Williams played after his return, it seems doubtful that BC would have lost to Vermont if he had been in there. Williams made his season debut at Providence and blocked a school-record 12 shots, but the Eagles lost.
"Our guys just stood around and watched (Williams)," Skinner said. "He was blocking shots, and no one was doing anything with them."
With Williams in the lineup, BC is a different team. It's really that simple.
Says Skinner: "People have got to start to recognize that this kid is an outstanding shotblocker -- not good, but outstanding."
Dudley just killed Michigan State, as BC avenged last year's loss to the Spartans, that game at Madison Square Garden. His 30-point performance was enough for MSU coach Tom Izzo to say, "Dudley might wind up my favorite player of the year."
This was BC's first Challenge game. As the new kids on the block, they were left out last year. Now the team that finishes 12th in the conference standings doesn't take part in the annual event.
Winning at UMass is always special for Skinner, a revered member of that school's sports past. The sellout was something special for the Minutemen, who appear to be on their way back. Skinner obviously loved being a part of the big event at his old school, especially since his current team won.
BC was set to meet Fairfield on Dec. 6, as Skinner was to face off against one of his two former assistants who just left. Ed Cooley is the new Fairfield coach. Bill Coen, who left the position of associate coach on the BC staff, will bring his Northeastern team to Conte Forum on New Year's Eve day.
FOOTBALL FINDS SUCCESS, SADNESS
The BC football team's quest to become the only program in the country with bowl wins in each of the last seven seasons will take it back to Charlotte, where the Eagles will face 9-3 Navy in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 30.
That's not a bad destination -- it's only sixth in the ACC's bowl pecking order, but it's two huge notches above Boise -- yet overall the 2006 season at BC will leave a bitter aftertaste, regardless of the outcome of the bowl game. Yes, BC is in the postseason for the eighth straight year. But this is the third season in a row where it could have been more, and possibly much more.
The Eagles lost their last game in the Big East when a win meant a BCS berth. They lost at North Carolina last year to lose a shot at the ACC title game. This year they went 9-3, but all three losses were in close games they'd love to have back.
It had to drive BC folks crazy to watch that less-than-scintillating ACC title game between Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The Eagles, who didn't play Tech (for the second straight year), feel they should have beaten Wake, so watching the Demon Deacons win the Orange Bowl berth had to be tough for the BC players and coaches.
While quarterback Matt Ryan and guard Josh Beekman made first-team All-ACC, offensive tackle James Marten, defensive tackle B.J. Raji and cornerback DeJuan Tribble made the second team, and wide receiver Kevin Challenger and safety Ryan Glasper made honorable mention, linebacker Jolonn Dunbar, the best player on the BC defense all year, was snubbed.
It was Dunbar, a true leader (and a captain as a junior), who blocked the extra point in overtime to lead to the win over Clemson. It was Dunbar who made repeated major stops in key situations against quality opponents. It was Dunbar who became the fourth player in the history of college football to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game.
In the end, unfortunately, it also was Dunbar who went unrecognized for an absolutely outstanding season.