New Heights

Illinois, Duke and ... Boston College? Thanks to a trio of Californians, the Eagles are the unlikeliest of unbeatens
January 31, 2005

The team that has done the best job of copying the blueprint of the New England Patriots doesn't even play football. About 20 miles northeast of Foxborough, Al Skinner has taken many of the same principles Bill Belichick uses and applied them to his Boston College basketball team, which at 16--0 was one of the nation's three remaining unbeatens entering Wednesday's game at Providence.

"Al has defined roles and the kids have accepted them," says associate head coach Bill Coen. "Things like ball movement, shot selection, screening, helping on defense--we do those things that some other teams forget about."

And, like the Patriots, the Eagles do them with players overlooked by everyone else. BC's top three scorers all left warm, sun-filled Southern California for the harsh winters of the Heights, primarily because Skinner was the only coach to give them a chance. "I remember UNC telling me that if I was a little bit taller and not as chubby, they'd recruit me," says junior forward Craig Smith, a 6'7" Los Angeles resident who was pushing 300 pounds as a high school senior and who is now the Eagles' leading point producer (18.5 scoring average) and rebounder (8.5). "All that negative feedback just balled up inside me and created a beast."

Smith had little trouble adjusting to the college game, earning second-team All--Big East honors as a freshman. But it wasn't until sophomores Jared Dudley, a 6'7" forward from San Diego, and Sean Marshall, a 6'6" swingman from Rialto, matured this season that the Eagles took off. Picked to finish fifth in their last go-round in the Big East before joining the ACC, the Eagles have found a way to gut out victory after victory, again emulating the Patriots. BC has trailed in the second half of four of their five conference games and has had several nail-biters at home, including two-point victories over Yale and Kent State.

"Sometimes it's just a positive feeling that teams have, and I think this team has it," says Skinner. "You don't win this many games this close without having the mental toughness and discipline you need to win under those conditions."

The ebb and flow between Smith and Dudley keeps BC from coasting in critical stretches. Smith, who now checks in at 250 pounds, has scored in double figures in all but four games as an Eagle, but this month Dudley (16.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) has emerged as option 1A, earning back-to-back Big East player of the week honors. On Jan. 19 he scored a career-high 36 against Villanova, including two free throws with 5.5 seconds left to give BC a 67--66 win. Then last Saturday he had 19 points and eight rebounds as the Eagles beat St. John's 79--73.

Like Smith's, Dudley's arrival in Chestnut Hill was hardly a slam dunk. He drew lukewarm interest from Oregon and San Diego State and was offered a scholarship by Boston College only after another recruit left school. Now it's hard to imagine the Eagles without this one-two punch. "We're just trying to keep this going as long as we can," says Dudley. "We think if we prepare right and play right, no one can beat us."

TWO COLOR PHOTOSLOU CAPOZZOLA (2) COAST TO COAST Smith (1), Dudley (center) and Marshall got Skinner (inset) to 16--0.