BU hosts America East-leading Maine
When the ball goes up at Agganis Arena just after 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday (ESPN3.com), it will be pursued by two teams with widely diverging storylines.
The visiting Maine Black Bears are leading the league and come in riding a seven-game winning streak, having just completed a massive comeback on the road against Binghamton, rallying from 22 points down to win 77-74 and improve to 14-7 overall and 8-1 in America East play. Though they finished tied for third last season, the Black Bears have never won the America East title.
This year, they aim to change that.
"I've never beat BU at BU, and there's a reason for that," Black Bears senior forward Troy Barnies said. "It's tough down here in Boston. We have to look at this as our conference championship game."
Barnies explained that the Black Bears probably need to treat every game like it's a conference championship game, to help them stay motivated and focused on the task at hand and keep them from looking ahead. The temptation is understandable. The Black Bears have never won the AE tourney, and they've never been to the NCAA tournament.
This year, they've seemingly come out of nowhere to give themselves a shot to change all that.
Meanwhile, the host Boston University Terriers have had a tumultuous season, marred by injury -- second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and 2009 AE Rookie of the Year Jake O'Brien is out for the year with a broken navicular bone in his left foot, which will require surgery, the team announced Monday -- and occasional ineffectiveness. It's been hard to see the highs and lows coming. The Terriers lost seven of eight from Nov. 30 to Jan. 2 (bookended by losses to No. 11 Kentucky and to Maine), and then promptly won their next three from Jan. 4 to Jan. 15 (including a W over perennial league power Vermont).
On Tuesday night, Terriers senior John Holland will likely reach a personal benchmark: The Bronx native enters the contest with 1,987 career points. If he scores his league-leading average (18.7) against Maine, he'll become just the second player in BU history to pass the 2,000-point plateau.
But you get the sense talking to him about it that he'd trade scoring 12 points the rest of the season and falling short of the mark for a championship.
"It's something nice, you know, but obviously we have way more important things to focus on at this point in the season," Holland said. "I try to keep it in perspective."
Perspective can be hard to come by in the heat of the moment, so let's provide some. When all's said and done, Holland will be the second most prolific scorer in Boston University history, behind only Tunji Awojobi. Awojobi scored 2,308 points and grabbed 1,237 rebounds, both school records, in his four-year career (from 1994 to 1997).
"I think it'll be a great accomplishment," second-year BU coach Patrick Chambers said. "John Holland's name will forever be etched in stone."
While reaching the 2,000-point mark may get his name etched in stone, the process that led Holland to that achievement has more in common with erosion forming sedimentary rock than etching. Bit by bit, bucket by bucket, his point total built up. Which is fitting, because that's kind of the way his basketball career has added up.
After four years of high school ball at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, Holland found himself without any palatable offers to play Division I basketball, so he called St. Benedict's, a prep school in Newark, N.J., looking for a place to play a fifth year and increase his profile.
"He called himself and said, 'Can I come?'" Chambers said. "And they said, 'We don't know who you are.'"
Holland had to play his way onto the St. Benedict's roster, and from there got an offer to play at BU. Chambers said that experience may have turned the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Holland into the "extremely hard worker" he is today.
"I don't know if he was overlooked," Chambers said, "maybe he just wasn't in the right situation. Maybe he bloomed a lot later. He's a man now."
You don't have to tell Barnies that.
"John Holland's a great offensive player," the 6-7 senior from Auburn, Maine, said. "When you talk about great offensive players in the league, the first name you think of is John Holland."
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Barnies' college basketball experience has been different. A part-time player his first three seasons in Orono, Barnies had career-high averages of 7.7 points (his sophomore year) and 5.5 rebounds (his junior year) a game entering his senior season. He's now averaging 14.0 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.
The mostly unexpected breakout year has Maine coach Ted Woodward searching for superlatives to describe it. Barnies has been "magnificent" and "phenomenal," according to his coach. "He's really worked his way into it," Woodward said. "He's just growing up through experience and maturity and understanding how to put it all together."
Barnies is less effusive. "To tell you the truth I feel like I've been the same player I was last year," he said.
Opponents seem to disagree, as more and more teams are sending extra defensive attention Barnies' way. Which is fine by the Black Bears big man, because according to Barnies, Maine runs 10 deep and has three or four other players capable of scoring 20 points on any given night (including fellow starter Gerald McLemore and sixth man Terrance Mitchell).
While Woodward said the offense has improved this season (and indeed, Maine leads the America East with a 70.0 scoring average and a 46.2 percent shooting mark from the field), defense is still the Black Bears' calling card. Maine is third in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 39.6 percent from the field.
Barnies said they will focus on making the Terriers play them one-on-one on Tuesday, and hope they can force the hosts into taking bad shots. And, of course, they'll be keying on Holland.
"Our game plan is to be up in his face," Barnies said. "It's really important to get him feeling uncomfortable, because if he gets comfortable he can get going and score 30 and win the game."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.