Eagles might be Big East's best
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Craig Smith waved goodbye to the Connecticut crowd as he walked off the Hartford Civic Center floor. He even saluted the fans before someone threw something from the crowd, although it missed him.
The Boston College junior forward was acknowledging that the rivalry with the Huskies is officially over as the Eagles move to the ACC next season.
If the Eagles thought they were the unwelcomed guest in this Big East opener (one fan held up a sign that said, "Betrayal College") then the rest of the league might not want the Eagles to come calling.
|Illinois||15-0||Jan. 8 at Purdue|
|Boston College||12-0||Jan. 8 vs. Providence|
|Duke||10-0||Jan. 8 vs. Temple|
|Kansas||10-0||Jan. 9 at Kentucky|
And it has nothing to do with the Eagles' future conference affiliation.
This BC squad, one of the four remaining undefeated teams in the country and at 12-0 off to its best start in school history, is good enough to win this league, much like its football brethren nearly did in their final Big East season this fall.
The Eagles beat Connecticut 75-70 on Wednesday night in one of the most impressive wins in Al Skinner's unheralded history at the Heights. The result, combined with Georgetown's shocking win at Pittsburgh and Villanova's convincing victory over West Virginia, prompted UConn coach Jim Calhoun to say, "This league is up for grabs."
BC had to beat Connecticut with Smith, the potential Big East player of the year and a possible first-team all-American, playing just six minutes in the first half because of three fouls. Smith picked up his fourth foul less than six minutes into the second half. The end result was Smith still scoring 16 points and grabbing six boards in just 17 minutes and the Eagles taking a seven-point deficit at halftime and turning it into a 10-point lead 12 minutes into the second half.
"This is a great feeling," said Smith, who had picked up four fouls in only two previous games against UCLA and Boston University. Smith averaged 33.1 minutes coming into the game, averaging 20.1 points and 8.5 boards.
"I was just saying goodbye, see you later and I'll never see you again," Smith said of his waving to the Connecticut fans in this the only meeting between the two teams in the regular season. "They were doing a lot of talking."
What could the fans say?
Not much to this Eagles team that has flown under the radar far too long. The coaches' poll somehow forgot the Eagles this week but BC did crack the AP poll at No. 25. That doesn't even do this team justice.
The Eagles hung with the Huskies inside (32-34), with points off turnovers (19-11), second-chance points (23-14) and on the bench (21-9).
"They came, they saw and they took away the game for us," Calhoun said. "BC beat us. I've been doing this for 19 years and very few teams come in here and take the game away from us."
How did this happen? How did Boston College become this confident, this fast?
Well, it began last March. The Eagles were steamed that they were a possession away from beating Georgia Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The only significant player that didn't return off that team was Uka Agbai, a fifth-year senior.
"As soon as we lost that game, the feeling in the locker room was we knew that we were talented as hell this season," said center Nate Doornekamp, one of only two seniors on the team.
"It didn't matter that I thought that way, it mattered that they thought that," Skinner said. "They were disappointed about the way they played in the tournament. They were motivated throughout the whole summer and have had a great attitude."
Associate head coach Bill Coen said the difference on the floor has been 6-foot-10 freshman Sean Williams, who had been suspended for three games this season for violation of team rules. If he keeps in line, the Eagles have the 'X' factor they desperately need to make a run at the Big East title.
Williams blocked three shots, scored eight points and grabbed six boards in 26 minutes, a number of them filling in for Smith. Two of the points came on an alley-oop, backdoor dunk.
"He adds a shot blocker, the extra defender, athletic player in the frontcourt that we hadn't had," Coen said. "He gives us that other dimension. With the experience we had coming back and adding him it meant we had the makings of a pretty good team."
Calhoun, who didn't meet the media until at least an hour after the game, couldn't have been more complimentary of the Eagles. Calhoun, who has made it clear he won't play the Eagles again after their abrupt departure, has always been respectful of Skinner.
"They showed great poise here," Calhoun said. "Al does a great job of having some arrogance about his team and I mean that in a positive sense. His kids play with a sense that they're going to win every game, even when they're not as good. Al did that when he was the coach at Rhode Island, too."
Senior Jermaine Watson called the victory over Connecticut one of his best in college. He is a prime example of Skinner's coaching. The staff thought Watson wouldn't last after his freshman season. But he stayed and became a contributor, finding his role after coming in thinking he was a scorer. As a reserve guard, Watson does the little things like defense, running the floor and looking for a key moment to drive the lane.
"No one is afraid out there," Watson said. "Coach Skinner allows his players to play. He doesn't yell at you for shots, unless they're terrible. He lets us play and everyone comes off the bench and has confidence and it shows. We knew we were going to beat them."
The Huskies talked about mental letdowns, something that the Eagles didn't have at any point during the game, save a two-minute stretch when the Eagles got careless at the end of the half. The second half started with Smith scoring eight points before he picked up his fourth foul.
"They run their offense better than they did a year ago," UConn's Rashad Anderson said. "They are more mentally tough than they were a year ago."
This is the same team that went two overtimes against Yale, one overtime against Holy Cross and beat Kent State by two on a Smith 12-foot jumper as time expired after the team trailed by 18 points in the first half, 14 at halftime.
Smith talked about how much heart this team has this season. Skinner didn't like the overtime games, but they gave this squad some moxie.
"We've showed a lot of composure so far," Skinner said.
And will the country finally recognize that this squad is a legitimate contender for the Big East title?
"We like when people forget about us," Watson said.
That might be hard to do from this point forward.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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