This is the tale of four programs, four coaches.
At Boston College, coach Steve Donahue is two-thirds of the way through his second season. It has been more worst of times than best of times, but the Eagles’ 64-60 upset of No. 15 Florida State Wednesday night ended a six-game losing streak.
At the University of Connecticut, Jim Calhoun was coming off an unexpected national championship with high expectations this season. But the Huskies have struggled, and Calhoun’s Hall of Fame career might be coming to an end because of ongoing back problems that have sidelined the 69-year-old coach.
At BC, no one expected miracles this season, including Donahue, who came to The Heights from Cornell, where he had just finished a Cinderella run to the NCAA Sweet 16. BC is too young (nine freshmen) and simply not good enough right now to be a contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But this is not about wins and losses. It is about the superb job of coaching that Donahue has done.
He has mixed and matched lineups, he has broken down the weaknesses of opponents, he has identified the main problem facing his team - which is the inability to play competitively for 40 minutes - and addressed it by trying to shrink the game with a deliberate style of play that he does not normally espouse.
Donahue said the losing streak did not really bother him.
“I don’t put a great deal on wins and losses with this group,’’ said Donahue. “They are working their tails off. I have been really happy the last two weeks.
“That being said, you want to win. We’re here to build a championship program. I want those guys to get rewarded for their hard work.’’
His latest entry is Deirunas Visockas, a 6-foot-4-inch guard who came to BC from Lafayette. He received his undergraduate degree but was able to take advantage of an NCAA rule that allows graduate students to take courses at another school and compete in a fifth year of eligibility. Visockas, like walk-on John Cahill last season, is an example of Donahue’s skill at extracting the best from his players.
Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon is Donahue’s closest friend in the coaching fraternity and recommended Visockas, who is from Lithuania and has had injury problems. He missed the Eagles’ first 17 games this season, but in the win over Florida State, he contributed 11 valuable minutes and came up with three assists.
When Donahue arrived at BC, his coaching credentials were not in question. The issue was whether, after a decade in the Ivy League, he could recruit at the ACC level. We still don’t know the answer to that, and probably won’t know for at least another year.
But in terms of what he has done with what he has, he has been an unquestioned success.
At UConn, the issue is not the team - it will straighten itself eventually - but the health of the coach. Calhoun is on a medical leave of absence with a condition called spinal stenosis, which may require surgery, perhaps in a few days.
A lot depends on Calhoun’s level of pain. The kid from Braintree is tough, but everyone has his limits. Still, one thing that gets Calhoun’s competitive juices flowing is having people tell him he can’t do something.
After winning his third national title last spring, Calhoun was playing with house money. He came back because he felt good and because he is one of the most competitive people on the planet.
But back surgery at his age is meant to improve the quality of life, which means playing with his grandchildren, hitting the golf ball, and being an ambassador in the state of Connecticut for what he has accomplished. He doesn’t have anything to prove. His doctors should simply tell him that enough is enough. Let someone else handle the stress.
Coaches will tell you that every weekend in the season has significance. But in the Ivy League, with Harvard nationally ranked, this is the one that people had circled on the calendar when the season began in November.
Coach Tommy Amaker’s Crimson face Penn tonight at The Palestra in Philadelphia, then head up the road to Princeton tomorrow night.
The Ivy League title can’t be clinched this weekend, but if Harvard is 8-0 in the Ivy League Sunday morning, it will take a monumental collapse for it to be caught.
Harvard is a very good team and could very well be playing well into March. The question is whether the NCAA selection committee thinks Harvard is an elite team in terms of seeding. Traditionally, Ivy teams have been lightly regarded, generally falling into the 12 or 13 seeds. The Cornell team coached by Donahue that made it to the Sweet 16 two years ago was a 12.
The last truly great Princeton team, in 1998, was given a No. 5 seed, but after beating UNLV in the first round, it lost to Michigan State. That No. 5 seed was the best given to an Ivy League champion since the seeding process began in 1979. Even the Penn team that made it to the Final Four in 1979 was a No. 9 seed.
Some early projections have Harvard seeded in the dreaded 8-vs.-9 slot, the winner of which must play the No. 1 seed in the second round.
To avoid that, Harvard can’t lose more than once more. If they don’t lose again, the Crimson should be in a No. 6 or No. 7 slot. If they lose a game but still win the Ivy League, that will place them back in a 10-11-12 spot.
At UMass, coach Derek Kellogg has done what he said he was going to do at the start of the season: turn the Minutemen into a respectable competitive program in the Atlantic 10. UMass’s 76-67 victory over St. Bonaventure Wednesday was its 12th straight win at Mullins Center and left the Minutemen at 18-6 overall.
Not bad for a program that most preseason experts had far down in the pack in the conference.