Skewed scheduling aside, expansion has been an interesting experience thus far for the ACC. Miami has been somewhat competitive (this year's injury-riddled team is an exception), and Virginia Tech has not been that far off, last year's bizarre season aside - and this year, they're doing quite well, thank you. And then there's Boston College.B.C. has been a completely different experience for the ACC. Where the rest of the conference, including the other two expansion teams, generally prefers a faster pace, and also, broadly speaking, enjoys a perimeter-oriented style, B.C.has a grumpier, your-father's-Oldsmobile style. They don't necessarily run a whole lot, although they do at times. They greatly prefer to pound the ball inside whenever possible, and their interior passing is as good as anyone's in the conference.
And with the possible exception of Gary Williams, who seems to have lost the knack lately, no one else in the conference can find diamonds in the rough like Al Skinner.
What is hard to understand sometimes is how Skinner's conservative coaching style seems to clash with his personal style and his basketball influences.
Skinner had the luxury in college of playing with Julius Erving, and teamed with him again in the ABA at the height of Erving's brilliance. Another UMass teammate? Rick Pitino. Skinner has a keen sense of fashion and dresses with flair, the fashion equivalent of a fastbreak. Somehow, though, despite spending considerable time around Erving, one of the most electric talents in the history of the game (if you've never seen his legendary under the backboard move against the Lakers, you're really missing something), despite time around Pitino, which had to include the future coaches discussing how they would approach the game, Skinner missed the excitement gene in basketball. All he does is win. It's not always thrilling to watch his teams play - although the Duke-B.C. matchups last season were quite scintillating - but the man does win.
This year, he's had some considerable challenges, but so far has met them brilliantly. He lost Craig Smith from last year's team and rebuilt around four (mostly) perimeter players and Sean Williams. His best player, Jared Dudley, has been playing with a stress fracture. Sean Williams and Akida McLain were recently booted off the team, forcing him to re-invent his team in the middle of the season. At this point, he may be doing it with mirrors, and it may collapse, but you'd have to argue that Skinner has quickly emerged as the third best coach in the conference. At the least, he's the third most consistent. Gary Williams and Paul Hewitt have had dazzling highs, but they've had crashing, devastating lows as well.
Not Skinner: he just keeps going, and has his Eagles in first place.
Still, he's got his hands full, and he may not be able to patch everything - or mask his weaknesses - well enough to stay in the penthouse. And after UNC's carpet bombing of Arizona Saturday, it's hard to argue who the best team in the conference is at this point.
Sean Williams covered up a lot of problems for B.C., or perhaps a lot of mistakes is a better way to put it. He became a great shotblocker before he was kicked off the team, and B.C., like any team with a great shotblocker, could gamble and he'd clean up mistakes.
That can't happen anymore. And Jared Dudley has to play through his pain because B.C. absolutely needs him.
In spite of his injury, Dudley is having a tremendous year, averaging almost 19 ppg and nearly nine boards a game as well. He's also averaging 3.1 assists.
B.C.'s backcourt is solid as well. Sean Marshall has lost a lot of weight since last season (one of Skinner's real talents is spotting a svelte athlete stuck in a pudgy high school body - he did the same thing with Craig Smith) and has really come on. He's tossing in 16 ppg. And Tyrese Rice has become a pretty good point in his sophomore year. He's passing well - 6.9 apg. - and showed last season he could score.
But with Williams gone, Dudley has been pulling 40 minutes every night, and the rotation is down to seven.
What that suggests is two things: 1) an opposing team can try hard to wear them out so that they would weaken at the end, and 2) run everything possible at Jared Dudley. If you can't get him in foul trouble, you can test his conditioning, which is necessarily compromised by his injury.
Duke in some respects is ideally suited to do both. They've shown this season that they are a potent defensive group and they can really make you work for your points. And they've got three or four guys to go after Dudley with in Lance Thomas, DeMarcus Nelson, Gerald Henderson, Dave McClure, and possibly (although probably only in a pinch) Jon Scheyer.
Nelson has emerged as the guy who usually gets the other team's best player, and since Marshall and Dudley are somewhat interchangeable, he'll spend time guarding Dudley.
For B.C., Duke presents a considerable challenge in a number of ways, but not least of all in defending Josh McRoberts. Even if Williams were still on the team, McRoberts could pull him out, because he's too dangerous a passer to leave unattended. And with Nelson, McClure, and Henderson cutting to the basket, he's even more dangerous. And then you have Scheyer, Greg Paulus, and Nelson popping from outside.
Duke's become a difficult team to match up with.
Still, Boston College has proven a worthy opponent, and they've also proven they aren't particularly interested in deferring to Duke. There is a rising rivalry, one which dates back to B.C.'s visit to Durham when they were still a Big East team.
What to expect? Rock-hard defense, very physical play, and a game which is close heading into the stretch. Duke had a near collapse against Clemson a few days ago. You can expect that it has been reviewed and addressed, and odds are if Duke is in a similar situation at the end of this game, they'll handle it better.