Courage and imprudence reside in the same vicinity, the border often defined more by outcome than by intent. Just ask Boston College coach Steve Donahue.
Courage can be absolute, as when someone scared of heights climbs to the top of a ladder because that’s where they need to go. But the same act can be ill-advised if the ladder is not firmly grounded.
Besides, as we all know, courage isn’t always rewarded.
So it is with the challenges taken on in sports, including one of the most revealing of all choices – how a college coach in a power conference schedules outside his league.
Bobby Cremins used to brave inordinately bracing nonconference opposition at Georgia Tech. His Yellow Jackets suffered plenty of early losses as a result, but were toughened for league play in an era when ACC success was itself sufficient to earn an NCAA berth.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, once comparably ambitious in venturing outside the ACC, has become far more calculated over the years. The Blue Devils didn’t play on hostile courts either last season or this one outside the conference.
Dean Smith generally scheduled a ranked opponent or two in the early going at North Carolina, but avoided lesser in-state rivals as a matter of policy. He insisted his Tar Heels didn’t need the added pressure of facing a team whose season would be made by winning in such circumstances.
Roy Williams takes a different approach, regularly playing other North Carolina squads from Davidson to UNC-Wilmington, along with the likes of Kentucky and Texas. He compensates by constructing long homestands.
This season Donahue decided to embrace the Cremins formula, crafting the most difficult nonconference schedule in the ACC. With a minimal home court advantage occasioned by the league’s lowest average attendance, it was a calculated gamble.
Encouraging boldness, the Eagles returned virtually everyone from last year, including All-ACC caliber players in forward Ryan Anderson and guard Olivier Hanlan, the 2013 ACC Freshman of the Year.
“We can’t afford to play bad teams,” Donahue said prior to the season. “I’ve got to be different. I can’t buy 13 games and get sellouts. We just can’t do it.”
Teams such as Duke, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh avoided hostile courts unless compelled by the workings of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Most other ACC coaches similarly took a conservative approach, anxious to nurture team confidence even as they built impressive records.
Meanwhile BC took a dauntless approach, venturing to Providence (Big East), Southern Cal (Pac 12), Auburn (SEC), and Harvard, a potent crosstown rival under Tommy Amaker.
And lost all four games.
There were also matchups at home with a UMass squad coincidentally enjoying that program’s best season since 1998, and a resurgent Toledo team that’s 13-2. BC lost those contests too.
Further increasing the degree of difficulty, injury sidelined Dennis Clifford, an interior difference-maker on a team that’s vulnerable on the boards. Only in the past few games has the 7-1 junior returned to action.
So, rather than build an impressive NCAA resume, by the time January rolled around the Eagles had double-digit losses and a triple-digit RPI. Once considered a savvy analyst’s pick to reach the NCAAs, Donahue’s club entered the teeth of ACC competition far removed from the league’s front rank.
“That schedule beat our guys up,” admits the fourth-year Boston College coach. “We just haven’t been able to get our confidence back to play the way we can for 40 minutes.”
With no seniors, or players with experience on a winning BC team after consecutive losing seasons, the building effort wasn’t as far advanced as Donahue believed.
“It was probably one year too early to throw them this schedule,” he says now.
Shaky confidence undermined the team’s 3-point shooting. A squad designed to rely more heavily on bonusphere scoring than any in the ACC was hitting a below-average percentage from long range (.332) through 17 games.
Moreover Boston College is at the bottom of the conference in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, scoring margin, and rebounding margin.
There are positive signs, though – none brighter than the best team free throw percentage in the ACC, not to mention the best in program history at .765. Donahue recruits shooters. The foul line is one place where that strength is evident.
“It bodes well for our outside shooting,” the coach says.
What’s more, after losing four straight, including an ACC home game against Clemson, the Eagles made their ACC road debut and beat Virginia Tech. Nearly half of their points derived from threes. Last year BC won only twice away from Chestnut Hill in ACC play.
Any enjoyment derived from beating Virginia Tech was short-lived — second-ranked Syracuse came to Conte Forum and won going away after trailing in the second half. Next up: a visit to Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels, 0-3 to start ACC action for just the second time in program history, will have a week to prepare and an acute sense of anxiety driving them onward.
BC and Donahue will advance armed with freshened confidence and the assurance “we’re doing the right things the right way,” according to the coach.
“Obviously you want to be confident, but it’s all right to be humbled once in a while,” Donahue says of a difficult season. From College Park to Chapel Hill, Durham to Tallahassee, Raleigh to Winston-Salem, there are plenty of other ACC coaches who know exactly what Donahue means.