CHESTNUT HILL - Not even one month ago, it looked like the Boston College Eagles were in for another difficult season. Losers of five of their first eight, including two bad losses to College of Charleston and Bryant, it was pretty clear that the Eagles weren't progressing, but regressing.
Here we are, one month later, and we've seen a turnaround. The Eagles closed out their non conference schedule with five consecutive victories, capped off by a 79-58 beat down of Dartmouth on New Year's Eve, and hold a respectable 8-5 record heading into Atlantic Coast Conference play this coming Saturday.
There have definitely been some bumps in the road, but Steve Donahue is content with where his still relatively inexperienced basketball team is at.
"I am [happy]," said Donahue, who is in his third year as head coach at Boston College men's basketball team. "I thought we really developed as a team since we came back from Charleston. I think that was the wake up call. And then, to be honest, I looked at the Bryant game the next day and it just hit me, like these guys eluded to it, that I haven't done a good job preparing them to play hard, especially on defense. I was trying to be more maybe strategic about teaching the game, and in reality, the first step is taking it personal, being aggressive, pressuring the ball. And that starts with me, and I said, you know, my fault now, it's going to be your responsibility from here on out."
After the 56-54 loss to Bryant on Nov. 25, Boston College rattled off six wins in its next seven games. Over that stretch, the Eagles averaged 69.8 points while allowing opponents to score 64.1 points (and if you take out the 79-63 loss to Harvard, BC is giving up just 61.6 points). In three of their first four losses, the Eagles gave up 71 or more points and let opponents score 80 or more twice.
"The guys that are playing are defending and doing the things that we want," said Donahue, "and it's gotten lightyears better with the exception of the Harvard game, and Harvard's obviously a very good basketball team [that's] really hard to guard for a young team like us who can move the ball and they went small. Outside of that game, I thought we've defended fairly well."
Freshman guard Joe Rahon (averaging 11.3 points, 4.2 assists and one steal per game) echoed his coach's enthusiasm about the team's progress, saying that the win over Dartmouth was exactly the way they wanted to go into ACC play.
"Definitely," said Rahon, who had 24 points in BC's win over Dartmouth, more points than any freshman in the ACC has scored in a game this year. "We looked at out schedule before the year started, and we looked at especially this month of December where we had six home games and didn't have to travel. One of our goals was to get all six, and we ended up dropping the first one to Harvard, but we were able to bounce back and get the next five. We're feeling good, we're playing well going into the ACC and we're going to try to keep it rolling."
It all started in practice, where the Eagles have tried to toughen themselves up, and since the beginning of the season, it has been like "night and day."
"[When] we started out the year, it wasn't very high intensity practice," Rahon said. "We didn't know what it took to win at this level yet. We hit a little rut, then we had a team meeting and we talked about how every practices matters and every possession in games matter. Our practice intensity has been night and day better from the beginning of the year. We're starting to get into people, we're trusting our teammates to have our backs if we get [beaten], and it's really starting to turn around and we're really playing well on the defensive end."
"I just feel like we started off the year, when we were playing defense, we were tentative and not aggressive," said fellow freshman guard Olivier Hanlan (averaging 13.0 points per game). "Now one of the main things we've been focusing on these last few weeks is just being aggressive and not scared to make mistakes on defense. We've kind of switched our whole mentality about how to play defense, so we're a lot more aggressive and we're doing pretty well with it."
At the start of the season, the Eagles relied a lot on sophomore forward Ryan Anderson (averaging team-high 15.9 points per game) to do the bulk of the scoring. Anderson started the year out with a career game against FIU, posting 29 points and 17 rebounds, and he had 25 points in BC's next game (a loss to then No. 16 ranked Baylor in the 2012 Charleston Classic), but his production waned over the next few games. Part of Anderson's regression was due to a right ankle injury, and it took him several weeks to work himself back to full health.
Now, Anderson may not always lead the team in scoring, but he's still helpful.
"I think Ryan Anderson's made a great in-season change," said Donahue. "You think about it, he got off to such a great start throwing up thirty a game and it was ridiculous. Then I think he learned, probably took it for granted a little bit, and he came out in that Dayton game and they handed it to him a little bit. Then he had the injury ... he was really struggling. But I think, through that and understanding what it takes, he came out and comes prepared to practice, he's playing hard all the time. He's been really good [in December]."
"He's been great for us," Hanlan added about Anderson. " He started off the year really scoring a lot of points, but he's still doing whatever he does best. Scoring, rebounding. Now he's passing the ball pretty well out of the post, so he's just really helping us and the guards, and theguards are also helping him just rebounding and everything, but he's been doing a pretty good job."
Boston College has found success doing exactly what Donahue likes - taking and making threes - and to him, that's how they'll have success in the ACC.
"I think we've got to play like that in this league," Donahue said. "We have the ability to take people off the dribble with this lineup, space people out, and if we compete and do ourselves on the boards, then we're going to be a hard team to knock out."
The Eagles begin their conference schedule with a tough test against the No. 23 ranked N.C. State Wolfpack on Saturday, Jan. 5 at Conte Forum before heading out on the road to face Virginia Tech (Jan. 9) and Wake Forest (Jan. 12).
Key home games against the Wolfpack, the North Carolina Tar Heels (Jan. 29) and the No. 1 ranked Duke Blue Devils (Feb. 10) will provide Donahue and company with a true barometer of Boston College's ultimate progress.
It certainly won't be easy, and it likely won't be pretty, but if Boston College can keep up this high level of play, it just might stand a fighting chance in the ACC.
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Editor of SB Nation Boston. Twitter: @GethinCoolbaugh.