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Friday, February 18, 2011
With eye on tourney, BC has work to do

By Jack McCluskey

If the college basketball season ended today, Boston College would have just better than 50-50 odds of making the NCAA tournament. Little better than a coin flip.

And that may not be surprising.

Coming off a season in which they won fewer games than they lost (15-16, 6-10 ACC) and transitioning from longtime head coach Al Skinner to former Cornell coach Steve Donahue, the Eagles weren’t expected to do much. During preseason, the media that covers the ACC picked BC to finish 10th in the conference.

But the senior-laden Eagles went 10-4 in their nonconference schedule and won their first three ACC games, perhaps raising expectations among the BC faithful. Then any momentum built up by the quick start petered out, the at-times-potent offense sputtered against better defenses at Florida State and Duke and home versus North Carolina, and a three-game losing streak to the aforementioned teams contributed to the Eagles going just 3-5 in their past eight games.

Now 16-9 and just 6-5 in the ACC, the Eagles have work to do in their last five games if they want to improve their odds of securing an at-large bid.

The Eagles are 0-3 against the RPI top 25 and 1-5 against the RPI top 50, with the lone win coming against Texas A&M (RPI 26) 67-65 on a neutral court in the Old Spice Classic on Nov. 25. And while for the most part the Eagles have held their own against the teams they’re supposed to beat (6-3 against RPI 51-100), there have been slip-ups both real and perceived.

First, the real: Yale came into Conte Forum and beat BC, 75-67. The 12-10 Elis sport an RPI of 142.

Second, the perceived: Harvard also came into Conte Forum and left with a 78-69 win. That made two home losses to Ivy League teams for an ACC team, which isn’t supposed to happen. But the Crimson are 18-4, neck and neck with Princeton for the Ivy League lead, and sport an RPI just a few places behind the Eagles (47, compared with 43 for BC).

BC has a good strength of schedule (18), decent nonconference strength of schedule (54), and a decent RPI (50). Add all that up, and Joe Lunardi is projecting BC as one of the “last four in” the tournament in his latest version of Bracketology.

There remains much for the Eagles to do to stay perched on the bubble.

Three of the Eagles’ five remaining games are away from the cozy confines of Conte Forum. They are just 2-6 on the road to date.

“You want to say 'take it one game at a time,' but it’s definitely in the back of our heads that we haven’t played well on the road,” BC senior Joe Trapani said by phone before practice Thursday. “We haven’t been able to get wins. We’re gonna have to turn that around.”

Their next chance to do so comes Saturday at North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center. The No. 19 Tar Heels (19-6, 9-2 ACC) gave the Eagles their worst beating of the season, winning by 32 (106-74) in Chestnut Hill on the first of February.

Trapani and Co. haven’t played since last Saturday, when they beat Maryland by four at home, and the break in the schedule has given them a chance to practice and to rest weary legs. The latter will be important against the Tar Heels, who used their transition offense to run away from the Eagles.

“Obviously defensively we let them get very comfortable, and they made a great percentage of their shots,” Trapani said. “That was tough. Defensively in general we need to get back. I think we turned the ball over a few times and that led to run-outs, which turned into easy points for them.”

The Eagles will need to limit those mistakes and run their offense effectively to stay within arm’s reach of Carolina on Saturday, or face a repeat of the teams’ first meeting.

“In some ways you’ve got nothing to lose,” Donahue said of a road rematch after a home blowout. “You didn’t do a great job at your place and now you’re down there. You really just have to approach it that, ‘You know what, we’re gonna go all out in this game and we’re gonna try to execute what we do. We were embarrassed on our home court and we’re gonna try to do a lot better.’”

Trapani stressed that the dwindling number of games remaining doesn’t add importance to each contest. “We have a goal to make it into postseason play,” he said. “We want to get as many wins as we can. Every game is just as important as the last.”

“When you first come out, I think it’s important that you’re motivating a group toward a common goal,” Donahue said. “[Making the NCAAs] definitely is what it was at the beginning of the year. The important part is the follow-up.”

To follow up on its goal, BC needs to improve its play on the road and take care of business at home.

After the game with Carolina (RPI: 13) this weekend (4 p.m. on ESPN, ESPN3.com), BC hosts Miami (64), then plays at Virginia (149) and Virginia Tech (57) before hosting Wake Forest (243) in the regular-season finale.

Win at either Carolina or Virginia Tech, and BC’s stock would likely receive a boost and secure its place on the tourney bubble. Lose at home to Miami or Wake Forest, and BC might find itself on the wrong side of the coin-flip odds.

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