In hindsight, Steve Donahue acknowledges that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for the Boston College men’s basketball team to take on such an ambitious nonconference schedule.
Maybe it wasn’t the right time for BC to play five nonleague games away from home, resulting in losses to Providence of the Big East (in overtime), to Purdue in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest, to Southern Cal of the Pac-12, to Auburn of the Southeastern Conference, and to Harvard, the reigning Ivy League champion.
Mired in the Atlantic Coast Conference cellar at 1-5 after a 68-60 loss to Georgia Tech Jan. 21 at Conte Forum, the Eagles (5-14 overall) face an uphill climb, needing to win 11 of their last 12 games to finish the regular season above .500.
In his fourth season at the Heights, Donahue acknowledged his miscalculated move to punch up the nonconference schedule to bolster the Eagles’ chances of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Asked if he bit off more than his team was capable of handling, Donahue sighed and said, “Yeah, I did. This group, I didn’t do them any favors by doing that. I probably had the right reason at heart. I said, ‘You know what, if we’re going to get to the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to need to have a really good nonconference schedule.’ ”
Donahue “did all the math with the RPIs’’ — a statistical metric used by the NCAA Selection Committee in determining the field of 68 teams, which values nonconference road games more than nonconference home games — and gambled on the fact the Eagles returned 96.3 percent of their scoring from last season, best in the ACC.
“I kind of knew that I was pushing the envelope just a little bit,’’ said Donahue, whose Eagles take on Virginia Tech at Conte Forum Wednesday night. “But there were a couple of things that happened that made the schedule a little more difficult.’’
The first was the incorrect assumption that the ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest would be a home game. But BC was shipped to Purdue Dec. 4, prolonging the outbound portion of the trip to USC, with that game Dec. 8. “It made that a bear of a trip,’’ Donahue said.
BC also drew Toledo, the top team in the Mid-American Conference, for a 2K Sports Classic first-round home game Nov. 14. The Eagles led by 12 with three minutes to play, but lost, 95-92.
“Toledo is a really good team, so that’s two things that really changed the dynamic of it,’’ Donahue said. “Then you lose an overtime game at Providence [in the season opener, 82-78], you lose a close one against UConn [72-70], and then you don’t have Dennis Clifford.
“I thought we could go 8-5 [nonconference], and going into the ACC league play I thought that would be pretty good. But there were other factors that turned the tables on us.’’
Clifford’s protracted absence this season destabilized BC’s roster. The 7-foot-1-inch junior center from Bridgewater missed the first 14 games nursing an arthritic condition in his knees, which required offseason surgery.
Clifford debuted in a 62-60 home loss to Clemson Jan. 4, grabbing 3 rebounds in 12 scoreless minutes. He followed up with 6 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes in BC’s only ACC victory, 62-59 at Virginia Tech.
But Clifford tweaked his ankle during warm-ups Jan. 13 against Syracuse (a 69-59 loss). On the eve of BC’s next game, at North Carolina Jan. 18, Clifford decided to shut it down for the season and seek a medical redshirt.
Without Clifford in the paint, 6-8 junior Ryan Anderson, who is more of a natural forward, has been forced to man the post. Donahue cited the glaring disparity between BC’s efficiency on both ends as an example of how the team is affected by Clifford’s absence.
“We’re No. 41 in the country in offensive efficiency, but 290 on defense,’’ Donahue pointed out. “It’s pretty apparent that we don’t have a lot of resistance at the rim when Dennis isn’t in there, so teams are able to get to the basket.
“The other thing is the rebounding aspect of it as well — you’re not giving up second shots. I think that has been the big difference with Dennis. I think he would’ve made us a lot more efficient defensive team and that probably would’ve won us a lot more games.
“That’s why we look forward to having him in our program over the next year and a half.”
The nonconference schedule, offering little reprieve from a difficult conference slate, has taken its toll on the Eagles.
“The thing we didn’t anticipate was that it has been a mental strain for a team that hasn’t experienced great success,’’ Donahue said. “The lack of confidence that the group is going through as we build up those losses, that’s something I didn’t anticipate.’’
How has Donahue managed to keep his spirits up?
“I work at it, I really do,’’ he said. “I mean, this is what I do. I kind of put myself last and worry about my players and not myself. I just try to think of ways we can figure out how to get better each and every day, individually and collectively, and that’s where I try to keep my mind, day by day.
“It’s just figuring out ways to get out of this. That’s all part of the job. Not that I like this part, but I know that it’s a challenge and I’m really looking forward to getting through it, and the team being better for it after we get through it. But it’s all part of it.’’
Donahue has experienced his fair share of frustrations this season. Late in BC’s 82-71 loss at UNC, he drew the first technical of his career for arguing a fifth personal foul against Olivier Hanlan, BC’s leading scorer.
“And I didn’t even use any [foul] language,’’ Donahue pointed out.
But Donahue has seen glimmers of hope. He viewed the second-half performance the Eagles submitted against Clemson, in which BC rallied from a 14-point deficit to pull within 2, and nearly forced overtime, as a sign of better things to come for his team.
“The thing I’ve said to them is that I think we’re going to benefit from all this adversity, and all those games against good teams,’’ said Donahue. “I think these guys are really prepared for everything now.
“Whether it helps us a month from now, I really feel it’s something that’s going to help the growth of these guys. That’s when maybe I’ll look back and feel differently than I do now.
“At this point, sure, I feel bad that I beat up the team’s confidence, but I do think it’s something, if we can stay with it, that we’ll look back and think it was a good thing as well.’’