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BC sees ACC tourney as fresh opportunity

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 8, 2012
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A Boston College men’s basketball team loaded with freshmen and first-timers got its baptism into the Atlantic Coast Conference, naturally, at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January.

The Eagles were smacked by reality when they saw a North Carolina starting lineup that was essentially a living, breathing NBA mock draft. That’s when they realized they would be battling, night in and night out, a different breed of opponent.

“I could hit them and they were going to hit me back harder,’’ said freshman forward Ryan Anderson. “It was an eye-opening experience.’’

Their first run through the ACC left them with bruises. They went 4-12 in the league (9-21 overall) and were outscored in league games by an average of 11 points.

“As players in this league, they want every game,’’ said freshman center Dennis Clifford. “You’re never going to go into a game saying, ‘This is going to be easier than the last.’ It’s like a bloodbath out there.’’

The Eagles open the ACC tournament Thursday afternoon in Atlanta against fifth-seeded North Carolina State (20-11), and even though they’ll be the lowest seed at No. 12, they feel light-years ahead of where they were when conference play started - let alone where they were when the season opened last fall.

“None of us really knows fully what to expect, but we’ve had a year of the ACC under our belt so far, and we feel like we know a little bit of what to expect from the tournament,’’ said freshman point guard Jordan Daniels. “It’s going to be real emotional, of course, and everyone’s going to be out there giving it their all because this is the final stab at it.

“We’ve just got to put all the other things that happened in the season behind us. Everything that’s happened before, it doesn’t really matter now. We’re not going off of our previous record or nothing. It’s like a fresh start right now. From scratch.’’

The theme throughout the season has been that this is a learning experience. BC lost by 23 to the Tar Heels at the Dean Dome, but responded by winning consecutive games against Clemson and Virginia Tech.

From there, the Eagles went on a six-game losing streak before snapping out of it with a win at Conte Forum against then-No. 15 Florida State Feb. 8.

Certain things eluded them this season - a conference win on the road, for example - but for a team that had nine players average at least 10 minutes, what counted was the experience.

“I feel like we were able to gain a lot of experience this year, mentally and physically,’’ said Daniels.

This year’s ACC is a mature league. After Duke’s Austin Rivers, the top four freshman scorers are all on BC’s roster.

“No one’s really playing as freshmen this year,’’ said BC coach Steve Donahue. “So they’re going against older kids. And when you’re going against a Miami, they sense that. Those older guys sense that they can get their way here, and their confidence builds, and our guys, at times, were probably overmatched physically.’’

Next year, Donahue said, that won’t happen.

“When our guys can kind of hold their own, then I think we’ll see them play confidently and with poise,’’ he said, “and all the things they’re good at comes to the surface.’’

In some ways, this season has felt like four or five different lifetimes for BC - from the team that was trampled by Holy Cross in November to the one that bounced back from a loss to North Carolina by beating Clemson and Virginia Tech back to back. Ten players earned starts this season. Donahue used nine lineups.

“I knew it was going to be different,’’ Donahue said. “And it’s not like I could call a colleague in the business and say, ‘How do you handle that?’ Because I don’t know of anybody that threw out a team of basically kids who never played college basketball before and never player together.’’

As the season progressed, Donahue was able to evaluate who could compete consistently at the ACC level. Anderson played in all 30 games (starting 27) and averaged 29.7 minutes (second on the team), and a team-high 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds, and was named to the ACC all-freshman team.

“I think Ryan Anderson has proven that he’s a very consistent player at this level,’’ said Donahue. “Whether he becomes an all-ACC type player will be in his hands, in terms of how hard he works, how big he gets, how strong he gets, how committed he is to all the other aspects.’’

But no one wants to use “potential’’ as a crutch. That conversation came up between Anderson and his roommate, freshman guard Lonnie Jackson.

“We said, ‘What are you doing today to get yourself better for tomorrow?’ ’’ said Anderson. “We can say we’re going to be better in two years, but what are we doing right now to make ourselves better?’’

For a team building for the future, there is a delicate balance between eyeing the big picture and playing for right now.

“I think it’s a pretty thin line,’’ said Clifford, “because it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to be good in the future’ or stuff like that.

“During the season, the main focus is right now. We want to be good as quickly as possible. We want to win the ACC tournament. So stuff like that keeps us focused.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.

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