Jerome Robinson watched his Boston College teammates erase Pitt’s best chance at an ACC win in almost three weeks and couldn’t help but feel sympathy.
The junior guard and the ACC’s second-leading scorer was on the bench with foul trouble near the end of the first half, but he would go on to score 25 of his 27 points in the second half of the Eagles’ 81-58 win. As he looked around at the mostly empty Petersen Events Center — which housed just 2,835 fans on Tuesday night after averaging over 10,000 per game for 12 of the first 13 years of its existence— he remembered his freshman year.
“I definitely thought about that, especially in the first half when I was sitting out for a little bit,” Robinson said. “I was like, ‘Damn, we were in the same position my freshman year.’ No fans. Not winning, and having to show up every game against a new team and not coming out on top was definitely tough.
"I feel for them, definitely. I know how hard it is to get through it.”
Robinson and his teammates at BC are walking evidence that it is possible to get through what the Panthers are experiencing this season and find success in the ACC. The Eagles can provide Pitt a model to follow as it suffers through what will arguably be the worst season in school history.
The Panthers (8-19) left Tuesday’s game with an 0-14 conference record and just four opportunities to claim a conference win left on the schedule. Similarly, the Eagles went through the entire 2015-16 season without a league win, finishing 7-25, 0-18.
Now in coach Jim Christian’s fourth season, the Eagles are at least in shouting distance of the NCAA Tournament bubble with a 16-10 overall record and a 6-7 mark in the ACC. They haven’t won more than 16 games in a season since the 2010-11 campaign, which was the last time they finished with a winning record, and they haven’t made the tournament since 2008-09. They have more than four ACC wins for the first time since 2012-13.
When asked how his program managed to turn itself around, Christian cited the patience of the Boston College administration and of his players.
Like Pitt coach Kevin Stallings, who went 16-17 in his first year with the Panthers last season, Christian began his time at BC with a senior-laden roster and led it to a 13-19 record in 2014-15. When they all moved on, the roster turned over and he went into his second season with three seniors, a junior, a sophomore and 10 freshmen, the bottom fell out. The third season wasn’t much better, as the Eagles finished 9-23, 2-16 in 2016-17. But this year, they stunned then No. 1 Duke in December and proved just how far they’ve come.
“It’s a process,” Christian said. “Everybody wants to rush it and it’s never done fast enough. Our fan base is equally as frustrated. Everybody wants it now, but it doesn’t always come now. You have to have a plan. You have to have the right guys, and you’ve got to stick with it. That’s what I think we’ve done. These guys have bought into it, and we’re starting to grow.”
Christian cited Robinson as one of the first to buy in and stick with it. The three-star recruit from Raleigh, N.C. had offers at smaller programs where he might have been able to win quicker than he would at BC, but he jumped at the chance to join an ACC program where he could get immediate playing time and wasn’t discouraged when he found himself losing nightly in front of an empty Alumni Hall.
“It was definitely tough,” Robinson said. “But I knew coming into this, the first thing I thought was I could be a pioneer to change the whole program. That's one thing that coach told me that he believed that we could do from day one, from my freshman year. I stuck with it and I believed in everything he said. As you can see, it’s starting to pay off for us now.”
Robinson has started in every game he’s played in since his freshman season, and Christian brought star players in around him, including sophomore guard Ky Bowman, who is also one of the league’s top 10 scorers, and freshman Steffon Mitchell, who is one of the conference’s top 10 rebounders.
“When you’re in a situation that you have to rebuild from scratch, you have to get the right pieces,” Christian said. “The right pieces have to be loyal and see the big picture, and then you add. It started with him. He was the first person who came in and saw it. This is why I have so much respect for him. This is a day and age when a lot of kids in college athletics run when it doesn’t go well. Tribute to him and his family, they saw what was going on. They saw if we got a couple more pieces, things could happen.”
Like Robinson, Christian sees Pitt going through a lot of the same things his program did two years ago and feels sympathy. It’s especially difficult to try to rebuild a program in the ACC, he said, because being part of a powerhouse conference exposes the talent and experience gaps in the sharpest possible relief.
“It’s a tough league,” Christian said. “When you have to rebuild from scratch and you have to bring in nine or 10 guys, you’re like an expansion team. You don’t want to say it, you don’t want to go through it, it’s not easy to go through. It’s not a normal situation. A Kentucky can do it, but they’re not bringing in the same kinda guys. It’s going to take time.”
Christian believes the Panthers can get there without making a change at head coach.
“I know they have a phenomenal coach,” Christian said. “I know he’s a proven winner. I had so much respect for him way before I even met him because I’m a basketball person and basketball people like basketball people. There’s no doubt in my mind if the formula is here for them, if the same things happen, patience, if the guys grow, if the guys unify, it could happen. No doubt.”