BOSTON—Patrick Heckmann didn't feel insulted when Boston College was picked to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He wasn't surprised, either.
"It's kind of understandable. We lost pretty much all of our scoring options from last year," said Heckmann, one of nine freshmen on this year's team. "We should surprise a lot of people how good we can actually play."
After finishing 21-13 (9-7 ACC) in Steve Donahue's first year since coming to BC from Cornell, the Eagles lost all five starters -- and 10 lettermen in all. Of the returning players, Danny Rubin was the leader with 4.1 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.
"It's what a coach looks to do: You get a clean slate and a bunch of guys that really want to learn," Donahue said in his office this week as he prepared for his second season in Chestnut Hill. "It's fun, but it is challenging at the same time."
Despite bringing Donahue in to replace Al Skinner, BC had another one of its typical seasons last year: losing to Harvard for the third straight season -- and losing to a second Ivy League school, Yale, as well -- but finishing tied for fourth in the ACC with 21 wins overall. The small-school losses and a second-round loss in the conference tournament kept the Eagles out of the NCAAs; they lost to Northwestern in the second round of the NIT.
And whatever talent there was on that roster is gone now.
Out went seniors Joe Trapani, Corey Raji, Josh Southern and Biko Paris. Following them was Reggie Jackson, who led the team with 18 points and 4.5 assists to earn a spot on the All-ACC first team, and an honorable mention All-America by The Associated Press; he declared for the NBA draft a year early and was picked 24th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In came nine freshmen, including Heckmann, who spent part of this summer playing for the German team that finished fifth in the European under-20 championships.
"We're working hard on the court, trying to get to know each other and trying to get to know Coach Donahue's system," Heckmann said. "We're going so hard. It's physical; it's tough; it's really competitive out there. That's how you make each other better."
The likely starting center is another freshman, 7-footer Dennis Clifford. K.C. Caudill, who's 6-foot-10, is another option at center and one of four freshmen from California.
Donahue said the Eagles can be successful if they are gritty, and "scrappy as heck."
"We're not going to be the most athletic and the longest team out there," he said, "so we're going to have to be smart, and great with the basketball."
And he has had no trouble convincing the players that nobody can take a spot in the lineup, or the rotation, for granted.
"We're all really ready to compete," Clifford said. "We don't have as much room for error. We're willing to work harder than most of the other teams because we know we have to. It's easy to be on top. But since we were picked last, we have to."
Two other players on the roster are new to BC, both of them graduate students with a year of eligibility left: Saleh Abdo, a guard who graduated from Trinity (Conn.), and Deirunas Visockas, a guard from Lithuania who was an undergraduate at Lafayette.
Matt Humphrey, a guard who played 50 games in two seasons at Oregon before transferring and spending last year learning Donahue's system, gives the Eagles some more experience. He's a junior, as is guard Peter Rehnquist. Rubin and Gabe Moton are sophomores.
And there's one more sophomore: Donahue.
After 10 years in the Ivy League, with its non-scholarship players and weekend games that don't interfere with class time, Donahue was in many ways a freshman for his first season in the ACC last year. Midweek travel to unfamiliar arenas posed a new challenge, and the coach sometimes found himself relying on those who'd been around -- including his players -- to show him what's what.
"There were so many different things that I faced last year," Donahue said. "I was almost an observer at times."
But now the experience is serving him well.
"It gave me a chance to settle in," he said. "I was very fortunate to get that year."
And working with such a large group can have its advantages.
"They don't have bad habits, so they're not set in their ways," Donahue said. "We're all learning together."
And if they don't, at least they'll have company.
"With nine freshmen, it definitely pulls us closer together," Clifford said, "because we're all going through the same thing right now."