Turning an NCAA tournament loss into something sweet and special

By Kevin Armstrong The Heights

Chestnut Hill, MA (U-WIRE) -- Under the lights on a Friday night, Al Skinner knew he would feel it.

The closing credits had just come down on his season, but he knew the feeling wouldn't hit that night or the next. Instead, it would be a Friday night. That's when the feeling would come.

Jermaine Watson's shot had just fallen short. Paul Hewitt and the Georgia Tech team were glowing with the spoils of victory, and Skinner's team was looking for the bus to the airport.

"Friday. That's when it will sink in. It will hit when I see other teams playing when we could have been," said Skinner following his team's loss in the second round.

There would be no sweet sixteen. No trip to St. Louis to continue the team's march into March. Still, Skinner had a good feeling about his team's play.

"I'm very proud of the way they handled themselves," said Skinner.

But pride could only take them so far, and so they went to work over the summer.

Craig Smith, who was a first team All-Big East selection, had gotten in early foul trouble against Georgia Tech and was forced to play carefully the rest of the way. Following the loss, Smith said, "It feels terrible. I just wish there was something I could have done out there, but I just feel awful."

During the offseason those feelings were morphed into muscle.

After the loss, he was left to think about the last loss the entire offseason.

"Losing the way we did to them was painful. It just made me want to get out there and work even harder," said Smith, who did work harder. In fact, he worked so hard that his body is slimmed down and tighter than ever. Instead of keeping the label of being a little soft on the interior, Smith has shown up with the ability to bang and run.

And so have his teammates. Now 16 games into this year's campaign, having beaten St. John's 79-73 Saturday night in New York, Skinner and his team stand with only two other undefeated teams in Division I.

Heading into Saturday only three other teams remained undefeated: Duke, Kansas, and Illinois. Then, there were only three undefeated squads after Kansas was blown out 83-62 at the Wachovia Center by a Villanova team that BC beat on Wednesday. So the question is asked nowadays about whether BC is real or not ? Is this team special?

"I guess 28-0 would be special. I'm not going to worry about that. I'm just looking at the next game," said Skinner after Wednesday's win over Villanova.

Still, BC is consistently polling on ESPN.com as the team most likely to fall next from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Questions of schedule strength and playing down to their opponents' level of play have been raised.

"That's for you guys [the media] to figure out," said Skinner. We just take it a game at a time."

But the idea of coming up above the radar has been one that many BC players have felt was long overdue.

If you were to ask Craig Smith and his cronies about the respect given BC last season, he would constantly talk of "the usual"- the refusal by many pundits that BC was a legitimate contender. Just two years ago, BC was snubbed by the tournament selection committee and most college basketball analysts.

Even the fans were sparing in last year's run. But this year, they too, are showing up.

"It's nice to have them there and be loud. That's what home court advantage is supposed to be about. We appreciate it," said Skinner about the fans' recent turnout.

In addition to students, high rollers of the Boston social and sports scene have been seen courtside recently. Just last week against Villanova, Larry Lucchino, president of the world champion Red Sox, could be seen enjoying the game courtside.

"Hey man, you know, we're looking to keep the winning going like the Red Sox and Patriots. I'm not even a Pats fan, but I'll be rooting for them," said Jared Dudley.

Bandwagons aren't the worries these days around BC. Just the next game.

(C) 2004 The Heights via U-WIRE

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