Oates gladly feeding off role player status with BC
Center John Oates has started all 35 games for BC this season, averaging 3.5 points. (AP Photo)
At first, John Oates revealed himself in small doses.
As the fifth starter on the Boston College men's basketball team, the 6-foot-10-inch sophomore center from Harriman, N.Y., knew it would be best -- given his limited college experience -- to stick to his role.
So Oates, who played in six games (no starts) as a freshman, limited himself to a rebound here, a defensive stop there, perhaps a blocked shot and, on the rare occasion, a field goal attempt. With savvy seniors Craig Smith and Louis Hinnant and experienced juniors Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall, Oates knew it would be best to follow their lead if he wanted to capitalize on the precious starting opportunity coach Al Skinner presented at the end of last season's 25-5 campaign.
''Coach Skinner took me into his office and let me know that I had a good opportunity to contribute and he let me know the things I needed to work on," said Oates, who immediately set out to become a better defender, a better shooter, and better-conditioned. ''I really worked hard this summer on that and got myself into a position where I was able to come in and contribute.
''Even still, to begin the season with Craig and Jared and Sean Marshall, they all took me under their wing and they'd bring me into Power Gym at night after we'd be done with everything at about 8-9 o'clock at night and we'd work out for a couple of hours. So they really got me to the point where I'd be ready to play.
''Even the first couple of games, it took a little tweaking and stuff, but they did a lot, even the coaches, to help get me to the point where I was able to contribute consistently."
Thirty-five games into his sophomore apprenticeship, Oates has emerged as more than just a serviceable center whose job was to hold a spot warm for shot-blocking sophomore Sean Williams until his return from a nine-game suspension.
''It was in the back of my mind, they might make a change, but I tried not to focus on it," Oates said of Williams's return Dec. 22. ''I knew if I was playing just so Sean wouldn't come in and take my spot, then I wouldn't perform well and I wouldn't be able to help the team.
''People made comments to me like, 'Well, Sean's coming back, so what's going to happen to your minutes?' And I told them, 'Listen, I'm not really worried about that, and I want Sean to come back. He's a tremendous weapon for us to have on the floor.'
''That was my main concern; I just wanted to win games. I wasn't really thinking about that; I was just thinking about how Sean coming back was going to help us, so I just kept my head down and kept playing and helped contribute."
But guess what happened during Williams's absence? Oates flourished against some tough competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference and became a consistent contributor (3.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, in 15.1 minutes per game).
As a result, he will make his 36th start when the fourth-seeded Eagles (28-7) tangle with top-seeded Villanova (27-4) Friday night in the semifinals of the NCAA's Minneapolis Regional at the Metrodome.
''The thing is that he had some of the skills that we liked to have and we liked to work with, and that's why we recruited him, initally," said Skinner, who landed Oates out of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. ''The most important thing was whether he was going to work at it or not. Again, he's continued to get better. But the thing I'm most happy about for him is that he's shown, at times, to have some real fire."
Asked to define what role he'll play against Villanova's guard-oriented attack, Oates said, ''I'm out there to play solid defense, grab rebounds, and hit open shots, when I have it. I basically am, like, a role player. But some people take that as being a bad thing. I have no problem with being a role player this year."
It's a role that has evolved this season. Though counted upon primarily for his defense and rebounding, Oates showed he could contribute as a shooter as well, even testing his range from 3-point waters when he knocked down 3 of 5 in a 15-point effort in a 77-66 nonconference win Dec. 3 over Sacred Heart.
''He's learning on the job and he's making himself into a player just by working hard and knowing his role on the team," assistant coach Ed Cooley said. ''If you really look at it, John is more of a freshman because he really didn't get a lot of opportunities last year. Defensively, he's a lot better. He's a better rebounder than people give him credit for and gets tough body-to-body rebounds."
As a shooter? ''He gives you a deadly weapon on the perimeter from where he's able to play off Jared and Craig, and that's a role he's definitely bought into. And the players believe in him, that's the most important thing. When your players give you that type of confidence, and they're looking at you to make shots, it goes a long way.
''When he's just standing out there and he's the fifth option and no one's even thinking about him, and he makes a three or an elbow jump shot, it's a back-breaker," Cooley noted.
Oates realizes it's not his place to be a game-changer. That business will be left up to the players Oates calls ''our staple guys."
''You go out there and you expect that Craig and Jared are going to score a bunch, they're going to rebound a bunch," Oates said. ''You expect Louis Hinnant to have a ton of assists and Sean Marshall to play great defense and be a scorer.
''Those are the things that are expected of them and teams know that so they try to stop that, but it takes the pressure off them for me to knock down an open shot. It opens things up for everyone else. I like playing that role now. I know my role and I'm absolutely comfortable with it."
Even if it comes in small doses.