Feb. 20, 2001
by Bo Rottenborn
When it was announced last September which Notre Dame men's basketball games would be televised, Irish fans were excited by the news. This was understandable since the upcoming season would be highlighted by nine nationally-televised games, the most since 1988-89, including the first trip to the Joyce Center by CBS Sports in more than a decade. Including games to be shown on the BIG EAST network and local broadcasts, 16 of the final 17 regular-season games would be televised, at least in the South Bend area.
At that point, no one was taking note of the Feb. 21 matchup at the Joyce Center between Notre Dame and Boston College. In fact, it was the only Irish regular-season game in 2001 not scheduled to be televised.
This was probably due to the fact the Eagles were picked to finish closer to the bottom than the top of the BIG EAST's East Division and the Irish entered this year without having posted a winning conference record since joining the league five years ago.
But, tonight, ninth-ranked Boston College invades the Joyce Center with a 19-3 overall record, as well as a league best 10-2 BIG EAST mark. #18 Notre Dame, though fresh off a disappointing home loss to Seton Hall on Sunday, greet the Eagles as the conference's West-Division leader with a 9-3 league ledger (17-6 overall).
Who would have thought tonight's matchup would be the biggest game of the BIG EAST season as now television executives are scrambling to get this game on the airwaves?
Tonight, ninth-ranked Boston College invades the Joyce Center with a 19-3 overall record, as well as a league best 10-2 BIG EAST mark. The Irish, though fresh off a disappointing home loss to Seton Hall on Sunday, will greet the Eagles as the conference's West-Division leader with a 9-3 league ledger (17-6 overall).
Boston College has been perhaps the biggest surprise in college basketball this year. With a sophomore and two freshman starters, the Eagles finished the 1999-2000 season with an 11-19 mark and a 3-13 conference record. But the future looked bright as point guard Troy Bell won BIG EAST Rookie-of-the-Year honors after leading his team with 18.8 points a game. Bell also led the conference with a stratospheric 89.4 free-throw percentage last year.
In all, the top five scorers from last year returned to the Eagles
lineup in 2000-01 and Boston College lost just one major contributor to graduation, swingman Michael Cotton. Still, many thought it was improbable Boston College would open the 2000-01 season 11-0, matching its win total of a year ago.
The Eagles then grabbed the conference's attention with a convincing 17-point victory over BIG EAST-favorite Connecticut on Jan. 3.
The winning streak stopped at 11 when Boston College traveled to St. John's on Jan. 10, falling to the Red Storm by two points, 73-71. After a win over Miami (Fla.), Boston College again went on the road and lost to then-top-ranked Duke, 97-75.
The Eagles responded by reeling off six straight victories before suffering their third loss of the year at UConn last Tuesday. Now, head coach Al Skinner, who has already registered more wins in 2000-01 than his teams had in the past two seasons combined, is one win away from the fourth 20-win season of his coaching career, the other three coming at the University of Rhode Island.
Notre Dame was in a similar position prior to the season as it used a freshman and three sophomores in its starting lineup a season ago and lost just starting point guard Jimmy Dillon. But even that didn't leave a hole in the Irish lineup as '98-99 starter Martin Ingelsby has stepped in and produced consistently all season. Plus, the Irish gained the services of senior transfer Ryan Humphrey, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma per NCAA rules.
First-year head coach Mike Brey's squad was considered as a preseason favorite in the BIG EAST and the Irish didn't disappoint. They were ranked as high as 10th in the nation before dropping a pair of non-conference home tilts to Indiana and Miami (Ohio). Notre Dame dropped its conference opener on the road to Syracuse and was also defeated by Seton Hall and Kentucky on the road in the next 10 days. Suddenly, at 9-5 overall and just 1-2 in the conference, the Irish found themselves unranked and in danger of falling out of postseason contention.
But then, just as the Eagles did at the beginning of the season, Notre Dame turned everything around and ran off eight consecutive victories, all over BIG EAST schools. That streak included back-to-back victories over teams in the top 10 for the first time in school history when the Irish knocked off #8 Syracuse 74-60 at home before beating 10th-ranked Georgetown 78-71 on the road.
Boston College's turnaround is a direct result of a few differences between this year's team and last year's squad. The first, and most obvious, is the tremendous home-court advantage that has been Silvio O. Conte Forum this year. The Eagles won just two home games in BIG EAST play.
The difference this season has been remarkable as Boston College is a perfect 15-0 at home and has registered impressive victories over Vanderbilt (by 23 points), UConn, Villanova (by 15), Syracuse and Providence.
Another change in Boston College's play this season is it has increased its scoring, while not allowing the games to become higher-scoring in general. They are holding BIG EAST opponents to less than 70 points per game this year, about 1.5 points per game fewer than in 1999-2000.
The Eagles are also scoring just under 80 points per game, an increase of nearly 15 per contest. The way this has been accomplished is primarily through more patience and better shot selection in the scope of the offense that has lead to an increase in field-goal percentage from 41 percent last year to nearly 47 percent this season.
The increased scoring output can be traced to one newcomer and the improved play of a pair of returnees. Freshman point guard Ryan Sidney was supposed to take much of the ball-handling burden from Bell. He has not only done that, but Sidney has been a major contributor offensively. The 6-2 Sidney has played in every game this season and is averaging over 22 minutes per contest. He averages fewer than two turnovers per game and has provided an impressive scoring punch, recording almost 12 points per game in BIG EAST play. In conference games, Sidney is shooting a blistering 59.8 percent from the field.
Two returning players have also stepped up considerably this season to help Boston College. Senior Kenny Harley is averaging 12 points per game after scoring just 5.5 a contest last season. Also, the 6-5 guard leads the Eagles in rebounding and has more assists than turnovers on the year.
Sophomore forward Uka Agbai has also turned it up a notch for Boston College. After averaging just 6.6 points last year, Agbai is pouring in nearly 12 per game this season. Also, he is shooting over 51 percent from the field and has blocked 30 shots.
The Irish, on the other hand, have saved their season with some fundamentals that Brey had been stressing from the day he arrived. After the early-season losses to Indiana and Miami (Ohio), the former Delaware coach's greatest concern was the lack of defense played by his squad. Over the past nine games, Notre Dame has improved greatly defensively, as well as in one other important fundamental area - free throws, especially in the clutch.
Instead of being content to run up and down the court and try to outscore opponents, the Irish gameplan has turned towards a more deliberate attack that is meant to get good shot attempts and keep the score down. It has worked magically as the last nine games have featured an average of 15 fewer combined points than the previous 14 contests had. Also, Notre Dame is giving up just over 65 points over that stretch after surrendering nearly 72 a game early in the season.
A big part of this has been the improved Irish defense as evidenced by Notre Dame holding opponents to less than 38 percent shooting since losing to Kentucky. Another area the Irish have excelled in this season is shotblocking. Notre Dame has currently blocked 146 shots this season, which is a new school record, besting the 145 blocks by the 1991-92 team. Humphrey and junior All-American Troy Murphy have helped the Irish average nearly 6.5 blocked shots per contest this year.
The final fundamental area the Irish have improved in is free- throw shooting. After hitting a mediocre 64 percent through the first 11 games of the season, Notre Dame has cashed in from the stripe at a rate of 74 percent. More importantly, Brey's bunch has been deadly late in games. The Irish converted on 17 of 21 free throws in the final four minutes in the upset of Georgetown and were 12 of 14 in the last minute and a half of the Pittsburgh win.
Today will mark the 18th all-time meeting between the schools on the hardwood. Boston College has won nine of the previous 17 games, but Notre Dame has taken three of the last four overall and five of the last six at the Joyce Center.
Last season, Notre Dame took the only meeting, 86-77, at home. Murphy had 27 points on nine-of-13 shooting to lead four Irish players in double figures. Bell led the Eagles with 24 points, but they shot less than 37 percent on the day, while Notre Dame scorched the net at a 61-percent clip, including a 71-percent, first-half shooting mark. The Irish also made seven-of-11 three-pointers (64 percent) and hit at 84 percent from the charity stripe, allowing them to overcome 19 turnovers.
This time around, though, the game between these two Catholic institutions has a lot more on the line than in the past. Both teams are looking to move up in the rankings and closer to securing a regular-season division crown. Plus, they are thinking about seeding in the BIG EAST tournament, which is less than a month away. Tonight could even foreshadow a possible conference title or semifinal game. More importantly, though, both Notre Dame and Boston College are enjoying winning more than anyone expected them to and continuing to do that is motivation enough for these teams.