It was only moments after the Patriots became the 2004 Super Bowl Champions that my friend Josh Palazola declared, “Well, we gotta hope for some magic from the Celtics now, because I want to dominate the entire sports world.” Alas, while the Boston Red Sox, even in January, often relegate the New England Patriots to the bottom of Boston sports pages, on a big “Hot Stove” day, the Celtics are lucky to be found ahead of page three. Now they have been pushed even farther back in the paper, demoted not by Boston’s other sports franchise, Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, but by those Eagles up in Chestnut Hill, Boston College’s men’s basketball team.
The team from the small Jesuit college that’s often mistaken for the university it shares the city with has propelled itself to a No. 6 ranking in the polls. It’s been a slow three seasons since an exciting 2000-2001 run that saw BC rack up more wins than any of the school’s preceding teams and demolish Pittsburgh to take the Big East title. That 27-win team made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament before notching loss number five in a tight match-up against eventual elite-eight qualifier USC.
Could this year’s team match or exceed the achievements of the 2000-2001 squad? It was only a week ago that BC suffered its first loss at the hands of their Big East opponent and all-around arch rival Notre Dame. What has propelled the Eagles so far this season is how well-rounded their team is. Last Tuesday, however, the Fighting Irish managed to exploit a key Eagle weakness: outside shooting. Notre Dame kept five men in the paint throughout the game and cost BC a lot of scoring opportunities. It was the second time Notre Dame’s has beaten a top-10 ranked team this season and the fourth time the Fighting Irish took down an undefeated team.
Notre Dame’s most famous upset victory was the one against the Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins in 1974, who were riding an 88-game win streak. But as the Bruins showed in 1975 when they won their eighth NCAA title in nine years, a loss to Notre Dame is not necessarily a sign of things to come. If the Eagles can defeat Rutgers at home this Wednesday night, it’ll lift their record to 22-1 and rejuvenate the team. Only five more wins and BC will be at the 27-mark that the 2000-2001 team achieved. But the Notre Dame loss has given new life to the arguments of BC doubters, who argue that this year’s team is not fundamentally different from the one that lost to Pitt in the Big East championship last year.
Of course, that’s exactly what the doubters have been saying all year. While the Eagles are ranked sixth in the country, it took a while for NCAA coaches and college basketball journalists to jump on the BC bandwagon. After all, the Maroon and Gold weren’t expected to do much this season. You might have thought last season set up a nice base from which analysts could have foreseen BC joining the elite of college basketball. But with the way the 2003-2004 season panned out, you would have thought wrong. Last season was certainly an improvement on its mediocre predecessors, as the Eagles went 24-10 after starting out 6-0. They also made it back to the second round of the NCAA bracket. But the bad traditions of every season since 2000-2001 were passed on as BC again lost to Pittsburgh in the Big East championship — not the type of play that hints at a team on the brink of going undefeated for 21 games.
But it was the little things — like the difference between freshmen who are simply talented and sophomores with both talent and experience — that evaded those who doubted the Eagles’ potential this season. They’d been there as freshmen and made an impact, but Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall truly came into their own this year, and both have been a big part of BC’s success. Both hailing from talent-packed California, neither Dudley nor Marshall were regarded as top recruits coming out of high school. The publication Hoop Scoop ranked Marshall 24th out of all the seniors in California and Dudley 47th. But BC head coach and former NBA player Al Skinner, once an overlooked recruit himself, was undaunted by the modest rankings. He trusted his scouts more than the numbers and wound up with both of the talented forwards.
Don’t get me wrong — Dudley in particular had a tremendous freshman campaign, including a selection as a Div. 1 third team All-American. But no one expected BC to go undefeated for as long as they did. And if the 2001 season has taught Super Fans anything, it’s to not fold when the gold and maroon chips are down. Any team can make a lot of progress in one year, for as any recent alum can attest, the season immediately preceding the Eagles’ triumphant 2001 campaign didn’t even take them to the second round of the Big East tournament. The roster may look strikingly similar, but this year’s Eagles are certainly not last year’s team.
This season’s lineup has a lot of potential, and one loss at Notre Dame is far from a fatal blow to their momentum. Not only are Dudley and Marshall back, but the addition of freshman Sean Williams has been a tremendous boost for the team. Local fan favorite and senior guard Jermaine Watson also never fails to elevate the energy level of fans and teammates every time he steps on the court. The favorite son of Dorchester, Mass. brings cheers from the Boston faithful whenever he comes off the bench. If the newly-experienced Dudley and Marshall, the rookie Williams and the hometown hero Watson have anything to say about it, the great UMass teams of the 90s won’t be the last college basketball squads Bostonians get excited about.
As BC superfan Liz Hassan’s dad told me recently about Boston sports, “If it has Boston attached to it, it’s got to be good.” At the time, he was revelling in the World Champion Red Sox, the then-AFC Champion Patriots and the No. 5 Boston College hoopsters. The Pats are now Super Bowl Champions, and the Boston College squad are still in the top 10. For the Chestnut Hill faithful, the mistakes of last year are unlikely to be repeated — the best is yet to come.