In many ways, Boston College came into the basketball season knowing it was facing a make-or-break situation.
The program hadn’t had a winning season since 2011. A combined 48 losses over the previous two years cast a cloud over Conte Forum. The two Atlantic Coast Conference wins the Eagles culled together last year after going winless in the conference the season before brought about questions of whether the team could compete in the ACC.
At the same time, four players transferred in the offseason, which meant that although the Eagles had a foundation built on the backcourt of Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, they would have to deal with some substantial turnover.
In the meantime, head coach Jim Christian’s name was a popular one to throw around on lists of coaches on the hot seat even though he signed an extension in 2016 that stretched his contract to the 2019-20 season.
Christian, a bottom-line guy to his core, was by no means oblivious to how important the 2017-18 season was.
“It’s always important,” he said. “We weren’t doing well. So, I mean, for us to show growth was important for everybody — important for our team, for our program, for me. It’s college basketball. You’ve got to have results.”
While the circumstances seemed overwhelming, Christian said the team’s focus never wavered.
He made a bold statement in the summer that Robinson and Bowman were the best backcourt in the country. He had a number in his head of how many wins the Eagles could put together and it was more than they had won in the past two years combined.
Even if the view from outside showed a team with a long way to go, Christian was confident that this would be the season the Eagles took a long-awaited step forward.
“I really believed it and I still believe it,” Christian said. “I believed in these guys. I believe in what we do and the way we prepare. I believe in all of it. It’s just a matter of finding that consistent level and understanding what you need to do to win. I think that’s what everybody’s seen, that’s what everybody’s excited about. They see what these guys are all about. We play hard, we play the right way, we play together.
For the first time in seven years, the Eagles (17-14, 7-11) will take a winning record into the ACC tournament when they face Georgia Tech (13-18, 6-12) at the Barclays Center on Tuesday. The Eagles will be led by Robinson, the conference’s leading scorer (20.7 points per game), who took first-team All-ACC honors Sunday — finishing runner-up to Duke’s Marvin Bagley III for player of the year.
The difference between the mind-set going into this year’s tournament compared with the past two is that the Eagles are going in with a sense that they could be there for a while. They feel that a couple of wins could solidify their chances of their first postseason appearance since going to the NIT in 2011.
“We know we’ve got something bigger to play for,” Robinson said. “We know a couple wins can maybe get us into the tournament. We know we can beat anybody in the conference. So we have a legitimate chance of making a deep run in the tournament. It’s a whole different flip side.
“Going into the ones before, it was just like, ‘Let’s maybe break this losing record.’ But now it’s just like, ‘Let’s win and keep winning.’ ”
Things threatened to unravel early in the season. Christian spent the summer trying to land Illinois State transfer Deontae Hawkins, who’s defensive presence, paint scoring, and playmaking on the perimeter would add a different dimension to the Eagles.
The 6-foot-8-inch Hawkins played eight games before suffering a season-ending knee injury and Christian’s plans seemingly went up in smoke.
Two games after Hawkins went down, the Eagles picked up the win that’s come to define their season: They stunned the college basketball world Dec. 9 when they knocked off then-top-ranked Duke, 89-84.
Fans stormed the floor at Conte Forum, but there were still questions about whether the Eagles were real.
“I think a lot of people didn’t see it — and probably still don’t see it sometimes,” Robinson said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, they got lucky.’ But we’ve had a lot of good games and proved a lot of people wrong throughout the year. I think it’s important for us.”
The Eagles put a scare into eventual ACC champion Virginia before the new year, then barely fell short of beating Clemson in January before finally breaking through with another win over a ranked opponent, outlasting then-No. 25 Miami, 72-70, on Feb. 10.
Finding ways to compete and win in the ACC bred confidence.
“The one thing we’ve proven is when we play well we can beat anybody in the league,” Christian said. “That’s a huge thing as you go into a conference tournament. Now that doesn’t mean you should win. But at least we know.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.