By Mary Paoletti
CHESTNUT HILL -- After Saturday's 66-63 loss to Duke, Boston College coach Al Skinner looked tired.
He sounded worse.
"The frustrating part for any team is getting over the hump," he said. "We're playing good teams well enough for periods. But it's got to be more extended. We can't afford to make mental mistakes and that's where we are right now. We've got to play 40 minutes and get the job done."
It's starting to look like this season might be one big hump for the 12-10 Eagles. With just seven games left to play, BC's only real shot to enter the 2010 NCAA Tournament is via the automatic bid given to each conference's tournament champion.
No small feat for a current ACC cellar dweller.
Of their remaining contests, just North Carolina and NC State sit below Boston College in the conference standings, and neither should be underestimated. NC State made headlines three weeks ago after a 14-point walloping of a Blue Devils team that BC -- twice -- couldn't beat. And though UNC is having an uncharacteristic down year, the Tar Heels still managed wins over No. 5 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State.
Do the Eagles actually have a chance to turn this season around?
Skinner did manage a minute of optimism.
"I still feel that good things can happen this season," he said. "We just have to put things together and do it for an extended period of time. Like I said, when we do that we are a pretty good team."
There is no denying the Eagles have strengths.
Joe Trapani continues to be a workhorse on the court. In his second season in Chestnut Hill, the junior combo forward is BC's leading scorer with a 14.5 ppg average in 29.5 minutes. But it's his willingness to contribute to the team in any possible facet of the game that makes him so valuable.
"Whatever I can do to help the team, whether it's rebounding or scoring I try to do whatever I can, Trapani has said. "If that means doing what I can to help the team on defense or offense, if I need to block shots or get a couple offensive rebounds and put-backs, trying to shoot a good percentage from the foul line I'll do whatever I can.
Reggie Jackson also gives a big lift to the Eagles. Whether Skinner uses him in the starting five or as instant offense and energy off the bench, Jackson's emotional play is at the center of this team's heart.
On Saturday, BC was down 64-60 to Duke with under 20 seconds to play. Jackson dribbled around the top of the key and pulled up for a triple. When that shot went down, putting the Eagles within striking distance of the upset, the sophomore passionately threw up his arms and screamed to get his team, and the Super Fans, roaring back to life.
It was an embodiment of the intensity that's been missing in some of BC's losses.
Such was the case Jan. 16 against Maryland. Skinner was beyond discouraged in the postgame, calling his team's lackluster effort in the 73-57 loss "disturbing," and seemed practically lost as how to resolve the uninspired mentality of his players.
The Eagles elevated their play in the three weeks that followed, yet have only been able to win two out of the last five games. Clearly, effort is just one piece of the puzzle. Playing a full 40 minutes of basketball that is not just dialed-in but clean has proved a bigger problem.
And the struggle has made it hard for Boston College to even think about the Big Dance.
"Right now I can't worry about the postseason because we haven't put ourselves in position to consider that," Skinner said.
No team wants to throw up a white flag. But his later comments might have interesting implications:
"These guys are coming back next year," he said. "As frustrating as this season has been, we're still building towards something. It's not like they are all seniors and heading out the door."
What does it mean when a head coach brings up the idea of a building year after yet another loss? And how much does such a remark overshadow the "good things" that Skinner says can still happen in 2010?
One has to wonder if he is trying to unburden his squad from what might be an unrealistic expectation of success. It sounds like the plan for the Eagles is to fight through the rest of the season but hold off hope for an earnest run at the title for the next year.
At least the future looks bright.
A more experienced retuning team should commit less of the mental mistakes that this season's squad so often trips over, and that's exactly what Skinner will have. Jackson will come back, as will the most oft-used starters; forwards Trapani and Corey Raji, point guard Biko Paris, center Josh Southern, and wing Rakim Sanders. Senior forward Tyler Roche will be the only one missing in 2011 from the current 12-man roster.
But that's next year.
For now, Boston College has enough talent to grab a few more wins and even surprise someone in the ACC tournament. But as for this year's national tournament -- the dancing shoes will probably stay in the closet.