Their ’06-’07 campaign has put BC fans through one heck of a roller coaster. One minute you’re throwing up your hands in exultation, the next you’re just plain throwing up.
The season started on a down note: Sean Williams and Akida McLain (who never got to experience an “up” note) were suspended to start the year and BC dropped consecutive non-conference games to Vermont and Providence. Then an up: Sparked by the out-of-this-world, layup-swatting return of Williams, the Eagles won their next six, beating both Michigan State and Maryland in the process. Then back down when Jared Dudley, BC’s unquestioned leader and all-time minutes-logger, missed three straight games after suffering a foot injury in an embarrassing blowout loss at Kansas.
When Dudley came back, Tyrese Rice valiantly took over sidekick responsibilities and BC rebounded by getting out to a 5-0 conference start. Then Williams and McLain reverted back to their rule-breaking ways. Dudley tried heroically to carry the team after a 1-2 hiccup, leading the Eagles to four-straight wins on his way to earning ACC Player of the Year honors. But things ended ugly. BC let both Duke and North Carolina escape Conte Forum with wins and stumbled its way into Blacksburg, where the Hokies did all sorts of Pokies on top of the noticeably defeated Eagles. In Atlanta last Sunday, tourney-hungry Georgia Tech made BC look NIT-hungry.
Last year, BC was cruising and used the momentum to come within a field goal of the ACC crown. This year, BC’s puttering into Tampa on fumes. Counting them out, though, would be silly. As despondent and sloppy as they can look at times – like at the end of the season – the Eagles can look ferocious and disciplined as well. If they can turn it on come Friday, maybe they can enter the Big Dance on an upswing.
But if BC is going to have success this weekend, here is what has to happen…
5. Tyrelle Blair before the 12-minute mark
Death. Taxes. John Oates staying in the game until about the 12-minute mark. With Al Skinner on the bench, all three are guarantees. Oates is a solid, reliable player who can pass out of the high post and hit the occasional open three. In other words, he fits perfectly into Skinner’s flex offense. But Blair is the best interior defender on the team (and one of the most underrated in the conference) and is the only guy that comes close to filling the void that Williams left. Blair is a perfect energy player off the bench. When he makes a play – be it an offensive board, a put-back dunk, or a swat that starts the break – he swings the momentum in BC’s favor. Plus, he provides that “last line of defense” component that allows his teammates to play more aggressively on the perimeter with the knowledge that Blair can protect the hoop.
He’s not an ideal starter because he can pick up fouls quickly and is unreliable on offense, but Blair gives the Eagles a defensive swagger. A swagger BC shouldn’t have to be without for the first eight minutes of each half. Blair doesn’t need to start, but Skinner shouldn’t be so reluctant to pull the trigger on Oates if the Eagles look sluggish out of the gates.
4. Sean Marshall: Captain
When BC struggled early in the season, Marshall was one of the first to admit it wasn’t acceptable. He shaved the Mohawk he donned in the first couple of games, got serious, and emailed every player on the team to tell him how much he respected him and how important it was to play as a team. Marshall, who even acts as the team barber, is by all accounts a great teammate and a respected leader off the court. He just needs to translate that to games. We’ve seen him have plenty of impressive performances (vs. Duke, vs. Clemson, game-winner vs. Florida State), but he’s also had some disappearing acts (vs. Vermont, at Kansas, at Duke).
Worse, though, are the occasions when he lets his emotions get the best of him. There’s nothing wrong with being an emotional player (see: Dudley, Jared), but as a captain, Marshall has to lead by example on the floor. In hostile territory, Marshall will have to step up to the challenge, score with confidence, and stay level-headed in front of his younger teammates.
Every scorer BC has is better when he goes to the hoop. The Eagles are the second-worst three-point-shooting team in the ACC, so there’s no need for them to linger on the perimeter. Dudley is the team’s most accurate long-distance marksman (47%), but it’s because he knows how to pick his shots. In other words, no one’s confusing him for J.J. Redick any time soon. Look at the difference in two- and three-point shooting for BC’s top three scorers:
Dudley: 47.4 61.7
Rice: 30.3 57.9
Marshall: 34.5 51.1
Of course, you’ll say, they’re more accurate the closer they are to the hoop. But the big difference in percentage has more to do with shot selection than proximity. Dudley is the smartest and craftiest scorer in the conference around the basket. If he has the slightest bit of room, he’ll find a way to score or find a way to look like he was fouled. Rice is unstoppable off the dribble. His quickness and yo-yo-like ball-handling skill help him get close, but it’s his infinite arsenal of shots (with both hands) that makes him one of the most difficult guards in the country to defend once he gets into the paint. Marshall, who’s also an underrated offensive rebounder, has a great knack for finding open space and going backdoor.
For each of them, his strength is on the inside. Against Georgia Tech, who stuffed the middle early and forced the Eagles outside, BC was too easily discouraged and its offense looked lackadaisical thereafter. Against a small Miami team, busting it inside shouldn’t be a problem. But if the Eagles want to go deep in the tournament, they have to be aggressive and stick to their close-range guns (not the artillery).
Focus has been an issue in just about every one of BC’s losses this season. Skinner’s flex is designed to be methodical and works best when it puts the opponent to sleep. But that can often cause the Eagles themselves to fall asleep and be overconfident in their short passes. Aggressive defenses like Duke’s or Georgia Tech’s killed BC by trapping at midcourt and pouncing into the passing lanes.
Rice and others have admitted that they just don’t play a full 40 minutes for some games. He said it about the last Duke game (19 turnovers) and their abysmal performance on the road against Virginia Tech the next week (38% shooting, including 12 missed threes). Someone, like the captains, Dudley and Marshall, needs to let the team know that they’ve entered into lose-and-you’re-out territory. BC simply can’t afford any more mental lapses.
1. Jared Dudley: Superman
In the last five games that Dudley has failed to score 20 points, BC is 0-5. The offense doesn’t center around him, but the team sure does rally around him. Rice has emerged as one of the conference’s best scorers and Marshall has proved that he can carry the offense for a little while. BC will, without a doubt, need a lot of help from both of them to go deep. If Rice and Marshall play well, the Eagles can beat Miami and seriously challenge the North Carolina/Florida State winner.
Dudley, though, can take them to the finals. He’s BC’s pacemaker. No one else can dominate the game from start to finish like Dudley can. No one else inspires his teammates and demands perfection like he does. No one else can work the refs or get his defender off his feet like he can. In his final season, in the conference tournament he grew up watching, Dudley will want success in this tournament perhaps more than he’s ever wanted it.
If Dudley puts together a memorable three-game stretch, if he plays like Superman, the Eagles could head to the Dance as ACC champs.