Sports, Basketball, Column

Too Ambitious

Chimes from an eerie movie commercial come over the speaker at Conte Forum, and for a moment, everything freezes.

The arena is empty except for the players on the floor and some season ticket holders scattered throughout the lower bowl. Olivier Hanlan is stretching out near half court, and Ryan Anderson is taking jumpers to warm-up for the team’s matchup. This scene has occurred at multiple home games throughout the season and sometimes, the team is not on the floor to hear Wale’s “Ambition.”

“The time is now, on everything,” rapper Wale Folarin says. Those lyrics are supposed to remind the team that the time to win is, well-now. Winning cannot be put aside for the team’s next game, whether it is against Virginia Tech, Syracuse, or North Carolina.

But the home games keep slipping away, and patience is running out among fans at Conte Forum. Many on social media have called for head coach Steve Donahue to be fired. The losses are piling up and some regard the Eagles as the nation’s most disappointing team.
As Meek Mill would say, for Boston College men’s basketball, times are harder than a cellar floor.

The Eagles are not only in the basement of the ACC, but also stuck in a miserable group. Of the 83 teams in the seven major basketball conferences formerly known as the Power Six before the split of the Big East, the Eagles are one of eight teams carrying a losing record. At 5-14, BC’s is the worst.

Donahue told The Heights in 2011 that each team he has aims to qualify for the Big Dance.

“It’s pretty simple,” Donahue said. “Rather than a goal, I always say to my team that the destination here is the NCAA tournament.”

The problem is that the program has only managed to make it as far as the second round of the NIT under Donahue, which occurred in his first season. The 2010 edition of the team was dependent not on Donahue’s recruits, but on a team Al Skinner left behind, which was fueled by Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson.

It was no small feat to take a team of players barely known to Donahue to postseason play. The second season was a throwaway, and last season, Joe Rahon and Hanlan were brought in to improve the team’s backcourt. The freshman combination thrived, especially later in the season, as they gelled with an elder frontcourt.

In 2013-14, the Eagles were supposed to take the ACC by storm. But they have not. After nearly breaking .500 in its past campaign, it is highly unlikely the team will reach that mark this year.

Part of it is the ambitious schedule Donahue laid out for the team to face. But that schedule was supposed to produce results down the line, and it hasn’t.

“Here’s my battle: My battle is I’m gonna stay in the process,” Donahue said after the team suffered a crushing defeat at Harvard. “I’m not gonna stay in short-term results. That’s for everybody else, except me, and I know that’s kind of probably hard to understand, but that’s the only job I’ve got. I’m going hour-to-hour to be positive and build this program the way I want to. I put the schedule out there.”

The schedule was hard, but the team did not lose playing good basketball. Defense was a huge problem, and while it has improved since ACC play began, results against teams the Eagles would have hoped knock off, including Maryland, Clemson and Georgia Tech, are disheartening.

Donahue’s style of play also requires a lot of determination. He has based the team around 3-point shooting, as opposed to a sound inside game. The spread offense sticks four to five guys around the perimeter with each ready to shoot when given an open look. Three-point shots are low percentage and unreliable, but this team needs to make them to win. The Eagles have won just one game this season when making fewer than eight 3-pointers, the exception being the five required against a lowly Sacred Heart.

Shooting from long range provides a bit of suspense. The ball hangs in the air for a second. The crowd holds its breath before the ball ripples through the twine. While that brought students to their feet against Syracuse, it failed to produce victory in the end.

Against Washington and the Orange, the Eagles were lights out from distance, providing exciting basketball. Donahue’s team attacked the Huskies, especially, with quick ball movement.

This plan worked for Donahue at Cornell and the system, which can provide a thrilling style of play, could have generated excitement around Conte. But it seems the system is not being loved for its ambition.

Donahue’s spread is a far cry from Skinner’s grind-it-out flex offense, which ran pattern after pattern to jam the ball inside the paint. While the flex may not be pretty, those teams were very successful.

In the next few months, there is not much the team can do. Reasonably, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament is out of the question.
Donahue has put an emphasis on academics at Boston College and said in 2010, “I consider this an Ivy school in the ACC.”

But many criticize Donahue for trying to create a basketball utopia and next year’s recruiting nest is empty, according to ESPN.
So while Donahue & co. may envision playing beautiful basketball and draining 3-pointers, they’re finding out that it is easy to dream a dream, and harder to live it.

January 23, 2014