Commentary

BU not running from challenge

Despite long odds, No. 16 seed Terriers aren't backing down from Kansas

Originally Published: March 18, 2011
By Jack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Boston University men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers got an interesting e-mail a while back. The second-year coach says he can't remember exactly when he got it or who sent it to him, but he remembers the contents well.

It was about taking a businesslike approach to every aspect of work. It was about intensity. About getting better every day. About putting defense ahead of offense and team ahead of self.

And it didn't hurt that the player it described just so happens to play professionally in the same city where Chambers found himself coaching college kids. That high-profile player has become a touchstone for Chambers with his players.

So as the Terriers stretched before practice at Case Gym on Tuesday, Chambers, clad in his BU gear -- red hoodie, black Nike shorts -- and basketball sneakers, stalked through the lines. Whistle hanging around his neck, water bottle in a holder at the small of his back, the coach was ready to work.

[+] EnlargeJohn Holland
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireJohn Holland says the Terriers believe in themselves, but BU figures to also need his prolific scoring to upset the Jayhawks.

Junior tri-captain Patrick Hazel called out a new stretch to his teammates, and as they echoed the call and changed the stretch, Chambers clapped and added his voice to theirs: "KG approach now, let's go!"

Yes, Kevin Garnett has become the model for Chambers' Terriers, the America East champions who will face the Big 12 champion Kansas Jayhawks in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday night.

And while none of the Terriers can boast of having the physical gifts of Garnett, they're trying hard to adapt his all-business mindset, to stress defense and rebounding over offense, to talk constantly on the court and to stay hungry -- even after tasting success.

"Practice [Monday] was much better than I thought it was going to be," Chambers said. "I thought we were still going to have that little effect of feeling happy, excited, we just won a championship, not coming in with that willingness to get better. I thought they did a really good job of coming in, businesslike -- again, KG approach -- and we worked hard."

The Terriers say they aren't sated by their league title and the school's first berth in the Big Dance since 2002. They won't just bask in the limelight of the tournament and accept that a loss to Kansas is a fait accompli.

"We're not just glad to be there; we want to compete," Hazel said.

And to do that, they know they need to ignore the hype and just focus on basketball.

"I just said to the guys, 'You're labeled as a 16-seed,'" Chambers said. "I truly believe we're not a 16-seed; that's just a number that was put upon us. We're a good basketball team and this is the next game on our schedule. And that's the way we're going to treat it.

"We're not going to treat this as 'David versus Goliath, shock the world,' none of that stuff. Because that might work for three or four minutes in this game, but it's a 40-minute basketball game. This is the next game on our schedule, and we want to go out and try to compete for 40 minutes."

"I'm not going to get into seeding and stuff and shocking the world because we have a belief in ourselves and that's all we need," John Holland said.

Believing is important, but the Terriers will need to do more tangible things to beat the Jayhawks. They'll need to defend (KU averages 82.4 points per game) and rebound (KU is 28-0 when it outrebounds its opponent). And they'll need Holland (the AE player of the year) to score in bunches, the way he did in the second half of the conference final to rally the Terriers from 15 down against Stony Brook. After scoring only four points in the first half, Holland matched his jersey number, 23, in the second.

"We have to play BU basketball," Darryl Partin said. "It's playing hard together, doing what we do, defending and rebounding. That's what's got us on this roll we're on now."

The Terriers are, without a doubt, on a roll. They've won more games in a row (11) than all but two schools in the country (Long Island has won 13 and Belmont has won 12).

But they haven't exactly been rolling over opponents. The Terriers have won their past six games by eight, two, two (in OT), nine, six and two points. They never led in the America East final until Holland sank a pair of free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining.

Ask Chambers about the comeback against Stony Brook and what it means for his team going forward and he's not shy. He thinks it has to help, especially if Kansas runs out to an early lead Friday.

"I think we have confidence right now," the coach said. "We've been in every situation possible over the last few weeks -- down our best player, down 15 points, whatever it may be -- and we've come back and shown some perseverance."

"All year long we've lost a lot of really close games," Partin said. "So it was good to have our backs against the ropes and come out swinging and have the ball end up on our side of the court this time."

The Terriers say the Jayhawks are just basketball players, the same as they are. But they acknowledge the different scales in play.

"I haven't actually gotten a scouting report, but I've seen on TV their games and their highlights. They're a great team, what can I say?" Holland said of the Jayhawks.

Kansas has won 32 of the 34 games it's played this season and is ranked No. 2 in the country. BU has won 21 of the 34 games it's played this season and hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since March 13, 1959, when it beat No. 18 Navy to advance to the Elite Eight.

That 1959 run is still the best in school history, and the only time that a BU team has won a game in the NCAA tournament (the two wins that year making up the entire left side of the Terriers' overall NCAA record: 2-6).

Chambers recruited Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris when he was an assistant at Villanova, so he knows the twin Kansas stars well. On Tuesday, Chambers said the Terriers must be willing to be physical with the big, strong Jayhawks.

Don't expect the Terriers to get creative with their game plan. "These guys only know one way to play, and that's the way we're going to play," Chambers said. "We've got to drive the basketball, we've got to try to get to the free throw line, we've got to take open shots if they're available.

"I don't know if they will be, [the Jayhawks] play great defense, but so does Stony Brook."

A 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed, and after running 10,000 simulations of the game Accuscore projects BU winning just 2 percent of the time.

Asked what he expected heading to Tulsa, Okla., for Friday's game, Hazel said, "I'm not going to use the 'W' word, but I expect to compete. We're really preparing, and we don't want to go out there just to get embarrassed."

The Jayhawks have been beaten four times in the opening round, including by 14-seed Bucknell in 2005, when they were a 3-seed. How does that loss relate to BU?

Junior tri-captain Matt Griffin's older brother John was part of that herd of Bison, playing five minutes and contributing two steals to the upset.

"I believe in us; I know we believe in each other. That's all that matters," Holland said. "If it's going to happen, that's what it's going to take."

And if Bucknell could upset Kansas, why can't BU?

After all, as KG bellowed in the moments after the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 6 to clinch the 2008 Finals, anything is possible.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.

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