The fun is over. Now, it's time to get down to business. Steve Donahue and the Boston College Eagles men's basketball team face their greatest challenge yet with Atlantic Coast Conference play opening against UNC on Saturday afternoon.
As the non-conference portion of their schedule has come to a close with a pair of difficult losses, one to a strong Harvard squad, the other a grueling double overtime affair to Rhode Island, the Boston College Eagles basketball team no prepares for an entirely different animal: conference play.
No, the ACC is not the dominant league it has been in years past, but the fact remains that it will be an uphill climb for an Eagles team that managed just five wins in 14 tries against out of conference opponents. The most troubling thing is the fact that so many of those games were against teams that are far weaker than what they'll be faced with every night in the conference. It can be argued that perhaps only non conference foes Saint Louis, New Mexico, Providence, and Harvard will be of the same caliber as the ACC opponents they are about to face.
With the talent level of their opponents about to rise sharply, coach Steve Donahue faces what may be his greatest challenge as a head basketball coach at any level. With so many freshmen on this team playing significant minutes (during the loss to Rhode Island, five freshman took the floor to start the game), there's a strong possibility that this team will struggle mightily as it adjusts to the speed and physicality of a major conference schedule. With those struggles could come frustration, anger, and eventually, disinterest. Donahue will be tasked with keeping this team focused on the long term picture rather than the immediate results, as it's highly unlikely that a team composed entirely of players who attended their senior proms less than a year ago can compete for an ACC title against perennial powerhouses Duke and North Carolina.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, the first test of Donahue's ability to keep this team focused and keep their focus on making strides and improvements will come Saturday when the Eagles visit the Dean Dome to play the 4th ranked North Carolina squad. As strong as early season BC opponents Harvard, New Mexico, and Saint Louis were, they pale in comparison to the athleticism and speed that they'll be faced with this weekend. Between player of the year candidate Harrison Barnes, the athletic front court pairing of the tarantula armed John Henson and Tyler Zeller, and the man who keeps them all functioning, Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels will be looking for blood early in the ACC opener for both teams.
In front of what will likely be a raucous sell out crowd, Roy Williams' kids will try and dispose of Boston College quickly, particularly if Donahue does not have them ready to play. It would be very easy for players like Ryan Anderson, Patrick Heckmann, Dennis Clifford, and Lonnie Jackson, who signed up specifically to play against teams like this, to get caught looking at their surroundings and admiring the players they watched so much on television the past few years. It's important for the young Eagles team to come out with a burst of energy early in this game to signify that they are in the building to play basketball and not just to watch the game like everyone else. While this game against Carolina is unlikely to go down as a win for BC, a respectable showing would do wonders for their confidence as they move deeper into conference play, because they'll never see a better team in a tougher venue this season (Duke included).
There's been some talk that the Eagles could surpass the 2010 Wake Forest team as one of the worst teams to ever play in the ACC. It's a fair question, as I can't recall an ACC team that had as many frosh in its regular rotation and as few seniors as this squad does. And If Coach Donahue is unable to keep this team's collective focus the rest of the season, things could quickly spiral out of control. However, I like what I've seen from Donahue this season, and his players seem to understand the gradual building process that they face. The talent level certainly appears to be there as we've already seen great improvement from players like Anderson, Jackson, and Jordan Daniels. It seems that each one of the freshmen playing regular minutes has had at least one signature game thus far and demonstrated their potential to do big things down the road.
As the season progresses, I expect them to get more comfortable with the speed of the game at the ACC level, and by the end of the conference slate, I would anticipate them being a tough out for some of the middle tier conference teams like Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Maryland. In addition, they should be able to not just compete with, but actually find a way to beat a team like Wake Forest or Georgia Tech, who are both equally weak this year, and probably on the same level as this Boston College team.
Essentially, the mantra is the same as it was two months ago, keep an eye out for improvement out of the individual players and keep your eyes off the scoreboard, at least for now. It's difficult to measure this team in wins and losses because of how young they are, but by the end of the season I believe that improvement will be apparent, and this team will be competitive enough to maybe give someone a run in the ACC Tournament in March.