Though they’ll probably never admit it, the Boston College Eagles may be happy to see only Atlantic Coast Conference teams left on their 2010-2011 schedule.
That means there are no remaining games to play against Ivy League schools, against which the Eagles are just 1-4 in the past three seasons (the lone win coming over Dartmouth in the 2009-10 season opener). BC has lost to Harvard for three straight years -- meaning the Eagles have never beaten the Crimson under Harvard's fourth-year head coach Tommy Amaker -- and added a loss to Yale to its resume this season.
BC's new men’s basketball boss Steve Donahue has great respect for the quality of play in the Ivy League, as you would expect: Donahue spent the previous decade-plus in the Ancient Eight, first as an assistant at Penn and then as head man at Cornell.
Because of that experience, Donahue also knows what Harvard's 78-69 win over BC on Wednesday means for its program.
“It’s huge. There’s a lot of good basketball being played in the Ivy League and to be honest I’m proud of those kids and how they’re playing,” Donahue said after BC's loss. “I don’t want them to beat me, but I know the obstacles it takes [overcoming] to win at that level. They’re a very good team. ... This [type of] win is huge for your program, for your kids. You try to sell it that you’re gonna play these teams and now you’re beating them. It’s huge for your program when you’re building it, for sure.”
Harvard improved to 10-3, with the three losses all coming on the road -- in the opener against George Mason, at Amaker’s previous school (Michigan) and at No. 4 UConn. With their 23-for-24 performance from the free-throw line on Wednesday, the Crimson move into first place in the nation in percentage from the charity stripe (81.5 percent as a team).
The aggressive Crimson are proving they’re no pushovers. They won 21 games last season and made it to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (where they lost to Appalachian State, 93-71). This season, Amaker & Co. -- even without star point guard Jeremy Lin, who graduated after last season and now plays for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors -- will attempt to challenge perennial powers Princeton, Penn and a Donahue-built Cornell for the Ancient Eight title and a berth in the NCAA tourney. (To read more on this in Andy Katz's blog, click HERE.)
Donahue cited the Crimson’s success at the foul line as a key component to Wednesday’s game, and also said he thought the smaller but perhaps more versatile players on the visitors’ roster presented matchup issues for the Eagles. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, was mental.
“I think they allowed the faults of the past [to affect them], and for the first time I felt that negative vibe,” Donahue said of what went wrong with the Eagles. “They shouldn’t be like that. We’re a good basketball team, we’re working hard each and every day and we’re gonna bounce back and learn from this.”
The Chestnut Hill club will need to learn those lessons in a hurry to avoid squandering the momentum built in an unexpectedly hot start under Donahue. Prior to the loss to Harvard, BC had won eight of its previous nine games. The Eagles finished the nonconference portion of their schedule 10-4 and head into the brunt of ACC play tied with Florida State for the second-best record in the league at 11-4 overall (1-0 ACC). No. 1-ranked Duke leads the league at 14-0.
Donahue said he’s not concerned that the inability to set aside past failures will continue to plague the Eagles.
“We’ve had great wins this season, we’ve got to take our medicine right now,” he said. “We’re gonna learn from this and there’s no reason to allow negativity to stretch into what we’re doing. These guys work extremely hard, do everything I want, and we’re gonna get better because of this.
“I think what you do is you learn from everything,” the coach said. “There’s positives in this. I think I saw some things that we can correct and we’re gonna correct it, and if you learn from those I think it’s a positive. Every team’s gonna have moments during the season, you’re definitely gonna get tested, and we’re getting tested mentally right now.
“We’ll go back [Thursday] and work extremely hard and get it out of our system and get excited to play and get into the ACC.”
So far under Donahue, the Eagles have been a team of extremes.
They rank near the top of the ACC in a number of offensive categories, including free-throw percentage (third, 73.2), field-goal percentage (third, 48.5), and 3-point percentage (third, 39.7). But they also rank at or near the bottom of the conference in a number of defensive categories, including field-goal percentage defense (11th, allowing opponents to shoot 43.8 percent), rebounding margin (11th, minus-0.7), blocked shots (12th, 2.6 per game) and steals (12th, 5.1 per game).
The Eagles are fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 75.5 points a contest. But they allow opponents to score an average of 68.9 points, which ranks them next-to-last in the league (only Wake Forest has been more accommodating to opponents, allowing 73.8 points per).
Of more immediate concern, however, may be their difficulty rebounding. Because the new systems Donahue implemented stress spacing the floor, they require a conscious effort to crash the boards and secure caroms. The Eagles are 11th in the ACC in defensive rebound percentage (66.1) and 10th in offensive rebound percentage (30.4). Their next opponent, meanwhile, gobbles up the boards: while Georgia Tech is only ninth in defensive rebounds per game (24.4), the Yellow Jackets lead the ACC in defensive rebound percentage at 72.0 percent.
That means the Yellow Jackets, who will be in Conte Forum on Saturday to play the Eagles (4 p.m.), nab nearly three out of every four rebounds on the defensive end. So if the Eagles have an uncharacteristically lackluster shooting afternoon, and don’t improve significantly in their efforts to clean the offensive glass, they may find themselves in a hole that they’ll struggle to get out of.
And that could, in turn, lead the Eagles to another place they’d rather not be: smack in the midst of a two-game losing streak heading into the teeth of their schedule.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.