Even in this day and age of high school seniors dominating the NBA Draft, what Boston College coach Al Skinner accomplished last season was truly remarkable.
Skinner's Eagles won 24 games in 2003-04 despite starting two freshmen and two sophomores. The not-yet-legal Eagles showed surprising maturity and poise, winning 16 out of 25 games decided by 10 points or fewer. In super-tight games, Skinner's kids played loose, winning eight out of 12 games decided by five points or fewer. And BC went a perfect 4-0 in overtime.
The Eagles won with defense, something young teams rarely do. Boston College was 11-0 when holding teams under 60 points until its 57-54 loss to Georgia Tech in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
All this in the year after Troy Bell, the school's all-time leading scorer, graduated. "One of the strengths of this club was how much they believed in each other," Skinner said. "They really worked hard. We didn't have a lot of breakdowns, which is surprising for a young club."
Three sophomores should ensure BC's place in the top half of the Big East this season. Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall both started every game last season, while point guard Steve Hailey logged 18 minutes per game.
"We went through a lot of growing pains last year," Skinner said. "You can't take anything for granted, but some things should be easier for those three this year."
FRONTCOURTIn a league where Syracuse's Hakim Warrick and Providence's Ryan Gomes considered skipping their senior seasons to enter the NBA Draft, Craig Smith might be the best forward in the Big East. He's certainly the player no one likes to defend.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound junior poses a physical mismatch in the paint. Smith's strength and agility near the basket make him one part bouncer and one part ballet dancer. He's so strong that he effortlessly removes opponents from his path and rarely draws a cheap foul; he averaged just 2.7 fouls per game. "I think Craig's role will continue to grow," Skinner said, "but if he can give us what he gave us last year, I'll be happy."
Smith's frontcourt sidekick Uka Agbai is the only senior lost off last year's squad. Skinner will look at Nate Doornekamp, a backup at center as a junior, or incoming freshman Sean Williams, a 6-9 forward, to play alongside Smith.
BACKCOURTA year ago, the Boston College backcourt looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing. Now, Skinner's got a solid trio of guards plus a bevy of small forward candidates at his disposal.
Louis Hinnant inherited the starting point guard position and did a fine job. Hinnant handed out just 3.3 assists per game, but he rarely turned the ball over. Hinnant's confident ball-handling and 1.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was a good match for the Eagles' slow-down, grind-it-out style.
Hinnant will still get challenged for playing time as Hailey enters his sophomore year. Hailey is more dynamic than Hinnant, but he can get a little out of control.
Marshall came in with a reputation as a shooter, but he suffered from a case of the yips late in the season and made just 29 percent of his 3-point attempts as a freshman. If Marshall can regain his confidence and become a threat on the perimeter, it would give BC's offense a much-needed boost.
Dudley, a late signee, proved to be the gem in last year's freshman class. He averaged 11.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, both second to Smith on the team. The league's coaches made him a unanimous all-rookie pick.
FINAL ANALYSISBoston College's decision to leave the Big East was viewed as a traitorous move by many in the league. In places like Providence, Connecticut and Syracuse, the Eagles might as well shed their jerseys and paint a scarlet letter on their chests. Or a bullseye.
Skinner downplays the impact of the school's imminent departure, but it will be interesting to see how the Eagles fare as lame ducks.
"This season's not going to be any different than the previous season," Skinner said. "There's going to be some strong teams. You've got to go out and win some ball games."