ATLANTA - Good thing Al doesn't stress.
Can you imagine Jim Calhoun with this Boston College team? Or, even better, Gary Williams? There'd be a lot of miserable people in the BC basketball program. They'd make sure of that.
But, as always, Al Skinner is cool. He takes life as it comes, and this season he has been confronted with a very unusual group of young men. No other coach in the land can say he has a team good enough to win at North Carolina and bad enough to lose at home to Harvard three days later, a team good enough to beat Duke and bad enough to lose to a very ordinary Saint Louis team, a team that has done a half-dozen equally perplexing things this season.
"It's been an interesting experience," Skinner says.
Now before we get carried away, let us remember that BC wasn't picked to do much this season (11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll), and here it is on the first day of the ACC tournament, a 21-10 team widely considered an NCAA Tournament lock. So by any reasonable measure, this has been a very successful season for the Eagles.
But it's difficult to erase the memories of the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas. If you're good enough to beat Carolina and Duke, perhaps you should have more W's and fewer L's, which would certainly aid their NCAA seeding situation.
"It's a different group," Skinner explains. "I've had to push buttons individually. They have yet to come together collectively to get us rolling."
They are young. Seven members of Skinner's basic nine-man rotation are sophomores or freshmen. That might explain something.
"I think a lot of it has to do with us being a young team and not always preparing well," reasons sophomore Rakim Sanders, a 6-foot-5-inch guard from Pawtucket, R.I., who has led the team in scoring eight times and has made two game-winning baskets, including an icy 18-footer to upend Georgia Tech last Saturday. "We're not always as focused as we should be."
These are bright young men. They know about the basketball public's perception of them, and about all they can say is that perhaps they are being judged a bit unfairly. In their eyes, progress is being made.
"I don't honestly think we would have beaten Georgia Tech earlier in the year," maintains sophomore Joe Trapani, a 6-8 Connecticut-bred forward who has transferred from Vermont and proven to one and all that, yes, he's an ACC-level player, all right. "We were throwing the ball away too much and not executing our offense for a long stretch in that game. But we stuck together and made a lot of defensive stops and got ourselves back in the game and were able to pull it out, thanks to Rakim. I don't think we could have done that in December."
One of the endlessly analyzed aspects of this BC season has been the play of its one acknowledged star, senior guard Tyrese Rice. He's averaged 17.4 points and five assists a game, good enough to make him second-team All-ACC, but it hasn't been the transcendent senior season many expected from so talented a player. Seniors with their eyes on the NBA often get off track by trying to demonstrate supposedly broader skills, and perhaps that explains why there have been long stretches when Rice seems offensively passive. A player who has the ball in his hands as much as Rice, and who has his proven ability to create his own shot, could easily justify putting the ball up 15 times in a game far more than a mere seven times out of 30 games.
Of course, it's always a tricky business when the best player is a point guard who can score. He wants to get the others involved, and BC does have nice balance (Trapani 13.6 points per game, Sanders 12.8, Corey Raji 9.8. Reggie Jackson 7.5). Still, let no one be confused: Rice is BC's most explosive player, and this season he's had far fewer eruptions.
It's no secret that Boston is a pro-oriented city, and collegiate athletic accomplishments are not always properly celebrated. Yet when will people stop taking what Al Skinner has accomplished at BC for granted? When BC gets its expected invitation to the NCAA Tournament Sunday evening, it will have one of those coveted 65 invitations for the seventh time in nine years. Given what BC has been up against in the Big East and ACC, where so many of its rivals have so much more to offer a publicity-seeking recruit, this is an achievement bordering on the phenomenal.
Skinner is, in fact, presiding over a Golden Age of BC Basketball. For one thing, he is both the longest-tenured and winningest coach in BC basketball history.
This is Year 12 and his teams have won 231 games. Since 2000-01, BC has quietly averaged 22 wins a season while making those seven NCAA appearances (I'm assuming). Far too many people, including some who should definitely know better, do not appreciate how difficult that is to do at BC.
But there is, of course, no one quite like Al, who has no public profile, no interest whatsoever in self-promotion, and no ego to be abused by his team's general lack of recognition. Flying miles and miles under the radar suits No-Stress Al just fine.
Far from being tormented or aggravated by his team of in-and-outers, he is actually fascinated by them. "I've never had a team like this," Skinner acknowledges. "This will become part of my coaching experience. It's something I will draw on in years to come. It's always interesting to see what's going to happen. We can be outstanding or a little bit flat. But what's curious about it is that it has nothing to do with talent. It's a matter of whether or not they get focused.
"These kids are not intimidated by anyone," he continues. "We've all seen how good they can be. They do know how to win. But sometimes they just don't click. It's not about talent. It's about something else."
Tonight's game will provide a classic challenge for BC. When first they met, BC mauled Virginia for a half on the Cavaliers' floor before settling into a comfort zone and a 10-point win. So, yes, BC should win.
If No-Stress Al is worried, who can tell?
"Have fun writing this story," he advises.