HOWARD ULMAN AP Sports Writer
Newburyport Daily News
---- — BOSTON — Steve Donahue knew early last season that his young Boston College team would be overmatched in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In his second year as the Eagles basketball coach, he relied on freshmen to play the biggest roles and the result was predictable. BC went 9-22, its most losses in school history, and 4-14 in the ACC.
“When I saw how young we were and how inexperienced we were,” he said, “to think that we have to play the ACC with that team is pretty daunting.”
This season the Eagles certainly aren’t up there with North Carolina State, Duke, North Carolina and most teams in the conference, and they were picked to finish last in a poll of media members. But the experience of last season and progress in the offseason give Donahue hope.
“I’m much more comfortable (that) we’re able to compete,” he said. “We may not be great for 40 minutes in 10 games in a row, but this is a group that’s much more consistent, just way better to be competitive for longer than we were last year.”
The Eagles tied for last in the ACC and were outscored by an average of more than 11 points per conference game. Five of their top six scorers were freshmen. Four of them started at least 24 of the 31 games. The other regular starter, Matt Humphrey, transferred to West Virginia.
But BC added two promising freshman guards, Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon.
“Both are good sized, have good overall toughness and really good skill levels,” Donahue said. “I think both of them are able to step into this league physically and compete more than the group could last year.”
The frontcourt should be a strength again with freshmen Ryan Anderson, a 6-foot-8 forward who led the Eagles with 11.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and 7-foot center Dennis Clifford, who was third with averages of 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.
“Dennis has done an incredible job in the offseason. He is 25 pounds heavier and played a ton of basketball,” Donahue said. “Ryan’s getting better. He’s a guy that just understands the game so well and knows he can compete at this level.”
A 10-day trip to Spain in which BC played four games and saw the sights ended in early September and gave the players a chance to develop chemistry.
“This trip really brought all of us much closer,” Anderson wrote in a blog. “We were all good friends and liked each other before, but spending this time together has really made us a family.”
It also gave Donahue a better idea of his team’s capabilities than he had heading into last season.
“We got to work with our guys,” he said. “We’re bigger, stronger, more skilled and we’re deeper with the addition of other players. Every guy has made a substantial jump in his game.”
The Eagles will need that with seven games against teams ranked in the preseason Top 25. One of them comes in just the second game, against No. 19 Baylor at the Charleston Classic.
BC was 5-9 last season before starting its conference schedule. It won two of the first three games against ACC teams then went 2-12 the rest of the way, all against conference schools.
Of its four ACC wins — against Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech — two were by two points and two were by four. Its last four losses were by at least 21 points each.
The Eagles were just 1-13 on road or neutral courts and averaged only 59.3 points per game overall while being outrebounded by six boards per game.
“We had so many freshmen and sophomores, essentially our whole team,” Donahue said. “So it’s not like, ‘hey, we’re going to be a little better because this guy made the jump (this season).’ I think it’ll be pretty apparent when you see us play that we’ll be better with the basketball, defend the ball better, we’ll rebound the ball better and we’ll be consistent.”
Of last year’s freshmen, Anderson started 28 games, Clifford and point guard Jordan Daniels 25 and guard Lonnie Jackson 24.
The Eagles weakest spot appears to be the wing position where Patrick Heckmann returns after tying Jackson for fourth on the team in scoring with 8.3 points per game.
Donahue hopes Heckmann can be more consistent after a summer playing with his national team in Germany.
“Patrick’s ability can really make us a good team,” he said. “The ebbs and flows of last season (are) concerning and I think he realizes that. He had some great games and then other times he really struggled.”
Now he’s a sophomore, like many of his teammates.
The Eagles aren’t about to challenge for the ACC regular-season or tournament titles, but they’re less likely to be pushovers as time goes on.
“I think we are going to look back at last year, and even though it was difficult to go through, it was really something that we are going to be appreciative of,” Donahue said, “that we were able to put so many guys in those situations at such an early part of their career. We will start seeing the benefits this year and the next three years.”