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Boston College isn’t as bad as you might think

January 2, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Boston College is done with non-conference play, and perhaps thankful for that. The Eagles are 4-10, with one of the losses being an early ACC loss, and there’s not a lot of positive press about this team. There’s been speculation about Steve Donahue feeling some heat, and that continued on Wednesday while the Eagles suffered a 73-58 loss at Harvard. All this, and they already fight to be relevant in the first place, both in their strong conference and locally in a pro sports town.

Now it’s time to look this over a little more, and be fair to this team and coach. Boston College isn’t as bad as some think.

Let’s dispense with the negatives: 4-10 is not a good place to be. This team hasn’t played poorly, but they haven’t played very well. They’re not a good defensive team, they’ve been out-rebounded by over two per game, they’re not loaded with talent, and they don’t have much margin for error to begin with. They’re not the most exciting team. They’re not a deep team. And if this is to be a breakthrough year, they need to win some games even against good teams, which they haven’t done.

All of that is well-taken. We’re not talking about Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse, UCLA, or some other traditional national power. We’re not even talking about a team that’s on a good run of late like, say, Colorado. Realistically, this team was looked at as an NCAA Tournament team at best, and not one likely to even get to the second weekend.

Now, let’s come to the defense of Boston College. It’s lengthy, so bear with me.

The first and most salient fact is that the Eagles have played a tough schedule. The worst loss is at Auburn, a team that is 7-3 including a 7-1 mark at home, hence the Tigers’ 200 RPI according to ESPN.com’s Daily RPI as of Thursday morning. Here are the teams BC has lost to and their records, omitting 9-5 Maryland since it was a conference game mixed in:

Providence (10-4)
UMass (11-1)
Toledo (12-1)
Connecticut (11-2)
Purdue (10-4)
USC (9-4)
Auburn (7-3)
VCU (11-3)
Harvard (12-1)

The combined record: 93-23. Eight of the ten losses are to teams in the RPI top 100, four of which are in the top 50, and only Toledo came at home. UMass is No. 1 in RPI as of Thursday morning. The only non-conference loss outside the top 100 is the aforementioned one at Auburn (Maryland is 127, one behind the Eagles at 126). Of these teams, UMass, Connecticut and VCU should be in the NCAA Tournament as at-large teams; Toledo and Harvard should win their leagues. Providence projects as a borderline NCAA Tournament team. Purdue and USC could be pleasant surprises.

In other words, the Eagles haven’t lost to a bunch of cupcakes. As of Thursday morning Boston College has played the ninth-toughest non-conference schedule in the country. Only two high-major teams have played a tougher schedule – Alabama (sixth) and Kansas (second, behind New Orleans). To find the team that has played the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the ACC, you have to go down to Syracuse at number 29.

Boston College has also done this often away from home. They played just four non-conference home games, fewer than any other ACC team. Florida State played five home games to come in right behind them. In sharp contrast, NC State and Notre Dame have each played ten home games and North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Wake Forest have each played nine. Duke and Pittsburgh will go through non-conference not playing a single true road game, though they have played five and four neutral site games, respectively. Boston College played five true road games, more than anyone else in the ACC. For further reference, both Kansas and Alabama played two true road games in non-conference, and both schools lost both games.

You can see why Steve Donahue said on Wednesday that “No one at the high-major level has played a schedule like this ever. Go look at it. We’re playing road games, we’re playing these teams at neutral sites.”

It’s possible he’s engaging in a bit of hyperbole in saying “ever,” but for this year at least, he’s certainly right. The facts back him up and his point is clear, so at most there’s a minor quibble.

Besides the quality of competition, the Eagles haven’t done this with their whole team. They lost backup guard Darryl Hicks before the season to a torn ACL. Dennis Clifford has been out all season recovering from knee surgery and may ultimately redshirt, and the lack of a good alternative at center has meant many minutes there for Ryan Anderson. Lonnie Jackson, a key glue guy and shooter, missed the first three games with a hamstring injury and has surely not been 100 percent in every game he’s played. He also hasn’t looked like himself since returning.

“I think your margin for error in games of this caliber is very slim,” said Donahue. “I think that’s kind of what you saw in the results. I think we showed a lot of good signs. You’re just not going to beat really good teams if you don’t play really well. We’ve played okay; we haven’t played great, but we haven’t played awful, either.”

It’s because of this that perhaps those speculating on Donahue’s job status need to take a step back. Yes, Brad Bates is not the guy who hired him, and he already replaced the football coach since arriving. Yes, the team is 4-10 in a year where expectations were a lot higher, and perhaps too high to some. But there are explanations for it, and Boston College has not been a school whose first and foremost goal is winning a national championship on the hardwood. And none of us knows what Brad Bates is thinking deep down about all of this, although he had a front-row seat near the BC bench on Wednesday.

All of this is not to say that the Eagles are deep down an NCAA Tournament team, and a high seed at that. The reality is that if you’re a tournament team, you win a couple of these games. So perhaps BC is not an NCAA Tournament team this year; at this point about the only way that happens is a miraculous run in the ACC Tournament. But the team’s record shouldn’t lead you to think this is a team that could go winless in ACC play, and they are probably a ways from being the worst team in the ACC. Harvard, who beat the Eagles on Wednesday, is in my opinion better than pretty much every ACC team except for possibly Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse (listed alphabetically), and maybe Florida State, Pittsburgh and Virginia as well. (Before Jerian Grant’s departure, Notre Dame could be included in the latter group as well.)

Did Donahue blow it with the schedule? Possibly, and that would be a fair criticism. It’s clear this team wasn’t ready for it, and injuries have hurt. Perhaps they were ready for a schedule with about half of the teams of this caliber. Maybe another win or two earlier helps them win a game or two later against better teams as a more confident group. This is the danger in scheduling like this if you’re not a national title contender: confidence can take a hit with nothing to show for it on the bottom line, especially for a team like this from whom much was expected.

“I honestly feel the schedule is going to benefit us at some point,” said Donahue. “Is it Saturday? Is it a week from now? Is it a month from now? Is it when these guys are seniors? We’ve played everybody, everywhere, and we benefit from this. My job is I’ve got to get them back confident, feeling good about themselves and their teammates, feeling good about what we’re doing. That’s going to help us win on Saturday.”

Saturday is when ACC play begins in earnest against Clemson at home. A win there could be the start of something, or it could be a blip on the radar screen. Time will tell.

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