For every agonizingly close loss Boston College endured this season, the Eagles had to keep in mind the improvement.
It didn’t take the sting off a 4-point loss to the College of Charleston. It didn’t make a 2-point loss to Bryant on their home floor any less of a blemish. It didn’t stop them from replaying the final two minutes of a 1-point loss to Duke over and over again.
It didn’t keep Olivier Hanlan from thinking about how a single free throw could have sent them into overtime against Miami.
But they had to trust that they were getting better.
“It was just the little things that hurt us,” said Hanlan, a freshman point guard. “It was always like one possession or two possessions down the stretch that decided the games.”
A year ago, the Eagles went 9-21, and it was assumed they would be a one-and-out team in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament (which they were).
But after winning 15 games this season, going 7-11 in the conference, and finishing the regular season with three straight wins, they go into this year’s tournament believing they’ve figured out how to win tough games.
“I’m glad we had to go through those losses, to be honest, and just learn from them,” Hanlan said. “Because everybody’s become better and improved.”
Their first-round matchup will be against a Georgia Tech team they just beat five days ago, and they have a real chance to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in six years.
“It was just a big transition for all of us, just learning how to win this year,” said sophomore forward Ryan Anderson. “I think everything was a first for us last year and we didn’t really know how to carry ourselves in these kinds of environments.
“Now, I think we have a lot more confidence in what to expect, what the environment’s like, and what it’s going to take to be successful. I think we all have a really high level of confidence going into this tournament.”
They constantly found themselves in airtight games this season, playing 12 that were decided by 4 points or fewer. They went 6-6 in them, but more importantly earned respect from teams around the conference, especially after being picked to finish last in the past two preseason polls.
“They’re not going to give up,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said earlier this season. “They’re a good basketball team.”
“We went from the bottom in almost every [statistical] category to the middle of the pack,” said BC coach Steve Donahue. “The next step is, how do you get to the elite, those four teams that get the byes? That’s where you want to be and that’s going to be our hardest step.
“This step, yeah, it was a lot, but the further you go up, the more difficult it is.”
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla can see the Eagles’ growth this season and their potential in coming seasons.
“Last year they put a JV team on the floor with an ACC schedule,” said Fraschilla. “They put so many guys on the floor that weren’t ready for this level.
“This year, it seems like while they still struggled at times, Coach Donahue’s got players that are getting better and better. It’s going to take a few more of those guys continuing to grow and improve. It seems like they’re going the slow and steady rate as opposed to taking any shortcuts.
“It may still take another year or two but I think when these young guys become juniors and seniors, Coach Donahue’s really got a chance to do some damage and make some headway.”
Still, there’s no discounting how difficult the building process will be in a league that’s always been dominated by the “haves.” Since 1997, Duke and North Carolina have won 14 of the 16 ACC tournaments.
“You’ll have to be patient with it, and guys have to grow up together,” said ESPN’s Jay Bilas. “As long as you keep that group together, they’ll reap the benefits of it going forward.”
When they look back at those close losses, the Eagles realize that winning those games could have put them in the conversation for postseason play.
But they chalk it up as a lesson.
“That’s experience,” Donahue said. “They’re going to know next November, December, ‘We’ve got to play really well right now because we know where we want to be.’ I don’t think they even grasped that at this point. I think they were just kind of surviving.”
Now they’re at a point where they’re growing, and the ACC tournament is another step in the maturation process.
“We see the potential,” Hanlan said. “Everyone on the team believes we can win a lot more games next year and keep on improving.”