COLUMN: BC Basketball Progresses Beyond Just Xs And Os
Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
It’s dangerously easy for frustration to set in when losses come from intangibles like inexperience and mental toughness. Xs and Os aren’t difficult to fix in the gym, and that kind of progress isn’t tough to track. But how does strength of mind come about? How do you fix experience?
These are the questions that men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue has had to answer as he rebuilds the Boston College program, and it’s a question he had to ask himself after an ugly, blowout loss to Harvard on Tuesday. He gave the team the day off on Wednesday not only so his players could clear their heads, but also so that he could clear his own before getting his guys ready for St. Francis.
“I didn’t want to come in and act like all right now I’m going to crack the whip,” Donahue said of the first practice after the loss to Harvard. “I wanted us to understand what we’re doing well and grow on it, and what we need to improve on and let them know that I’m happy with 99 percent of what’s going on in this program and I think we had those kinds of practices.”
The extra day gave Donahue time to cool off and understand the good things happening on the court. It gave him time to consider his team’s improved shooting percentage, rebounding advantage, assist-to-turnover ratio and ability to get to the line. He wasn’t going to let the scoreboard cloud his judgment.
“What we’ve been talking about, and it’s hard for you as writers—you’re seeing a snapshot of what’s going on 24/7 with this program as we rebuild and I don’t expect you to completely understand, but—it’s hard to say, but I’ve been very happy with our progress,” Donahue said. “I know that’s hard for fans and for people to see that but that’s not my job to worry about them, it’s to worry about what I’m seeing daily.”
Donahue made a point not to crack the whip simply out of anger over the disappointing loss, but he also wasn’t going to let his players off the hook. Thursday was the hardest practice they’ve ever had. The message wasn’t, though, that they had failed him.
“I want to win every game, but I can’t lose my mind and not figure out what’s going to be right and wrong for our team the next day,” Donahue said. “The next day at practice we went hard. It was upbeat and I challenged them as much as I would if I was angry, but I think the motivation was that we were really fired up to play.”
He also simplified things. He conceded that he may have thrown too much at his players. Their basketball IQ is so high and he wants to take advantage of that, but he also has to consider their experience level. Instead of implementing complex defensive concepts, he told his players just to be more aggressive and trust that the rest of the defense would have their back. It worked, although it almost looked like it wouldn’t.
The Eagles went into halftime down 35-33 to St. Francis today, and the same old story was playing out. The defense was poor against inferior competition and the offense was still awkward and inefficient. Freshmen guards Joe Rahon and Olivier Hanlan did their best to keep BC in the game, but they couldn’t do it alone.
Enter Lonnie Jackson. The sophomore guard had struggled so far this season, but Donahue chose to bring him off the bench and it paid dividends against the Terriers. St. Francis opened the second half on a 12-6 run and flashes from Harvard game started to set in, but Jackson wasn’t having it.
“I was coming off the bench and I saw we needed a little spark,” Jackson said. “So I was just going to do whatever it took to get our teaming going. I just knew I had to do something to get us going because we were lacking energy. But once we did that, our whole team started picking each other up and we were just playing together and that’s what we needed to do.”
There are plenty of strategic and executional flaws with this squad, but the losses have come mainly because too many of the players have shut down when things stopped going well. That didn’t happen today.
“I think that’s part of our growth, is not getting down when teams make their runs,” Jackson said. “I think today when we started going down by around ten I was starting to get a little worried just because of our body language, but once we got that energy going and that fight that we’re not going to lose this game, I think that’s what changed the whole outcome.”
That fight wasn’t there against Harvard, and it wasn’t there much last season, but it’s creeping in now. After Jackson checked in, BC rattled off 20 points to the Terriers’ four in a five minute span to take a seven point lead. When St. Francis closed that margin to one, Jackson drilled a three from well behind even the NBA line and the lead was secure from that point on. The Eagles went on to win 72-64.
It was a closer margin than it should have been, but nevertheless it was still a much-needed win after a dismal loss. And more importantly than that, for about 15 minutes today this squad of freshmen and sophomores gained a little more mental toughness and a little more experience, and to Donahue that’s what matters most.
“There are stretches in games that are really good and unfortunately stretches that are really bad,” Donahue said. “That’s a sign of inexperience and youth and it’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re trying to progress as a program.”