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Feb. 1, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - Corey Raji quickly settled the question of where he will be during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
"Back in my room, watching the game," he said.
Many people thought the senior forward for Boston College might be in Dallas, where Super Bowl XLV will unfold, watching his brother B.J. Raji play for the Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even Eagles coach Steve Donahue wasn't sure what Corey Raji's plans were.
But BC plays at Clemson next Tuesday and the logistics were too much to overcome.
"We're leaving Monday to fly down to Clemson," Raji said. "We'll take a charter so it would have been kind of tough for me to go down (to Dallas) and try to make it back. Yeah, I'm disappointed - nobody wants to miss a game like that. But there's nothing I can do about it. I have an obligation to my team."
While Raji's teammates might share his disappointment, they're probably relieved, too. He has been perhaps the Eagles' steadiest player as they take a 4-3 ACC record (14-7 overall) into tonight's home game against North Carolina.
Raji is averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds overall, but he steps up his play in ACC games. Within the league he ranks 12th in scoring at 13.7, 13th in rebounding at 6.6, second in shooting at 52.9 percent and third in 3-point shooting at 46.2 percent.
"Corey has been very consistent in his effort, that's the thing I love about him," Donahue said. "There're certain games where he's just a handful for the other team.
"Playing that consistent basketball, as a coach that's what you're asking for. So I kind of know what I'm going to get out of Corey every game offensively and defensively. If he continues to do that, I think we'll be in good shape the rest of the way."
At a glance, it would be hard to peg B.J. and Corey Raji as brothers. B.J. is 6-feet-2 and 337 pounds with a lot of moving parts in an end zone celebration. Corey is a different body type at 6-6 and 218 pounds.
B.J. tried to talk his younger brother into playing football at Westwood High School in Washington Township, N.J., but Corey just wasn't interested, figuring his future was in basketball. On the flip side, B.J. did play a year of hoops in high school.
"He was quick on his feet," Corey Raji said. "He had a lot of post moves, a very good player."
B.J. went on to play football at BC and Corey followed for basketball. Corey said getting a good education and playing ACC basketball were the biggest reasons for his decision, but he enjoyed having his brother around for two years.
"Having him up here just to guide and keep me rooted in the ground also played an important part," Raji said. "College was a new experience for me and we all need somebody to keep us on the right path and that's what he helped me do."
Raji made an immediate impact for coach Al Skinner, averaging 8.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman. He improved those marks to 9.9 and 6.1 as a sophomore and last year averaged 11.4 and 5.8. With a slashing style, he shot 53.9 percent his first three seasons.
The Eagles changed coaches for this season and Donahue brought a more open, running offense, a totally different style from Skinner's structured system. Raji said conditioning was one of the biggest adjustments, especially since he was relatively inactive during the summer after shoulder surgery.
One thing he welcomed was the freedom to shoot more 3-pointers, one of the primary ways for the Eagles to attack the basket. After taking just 42 3-pointers during his first three years combined, Raji has shot 65 of them already this season (and made 25 for 38.5 percent).
"It's something I welcomed with open arms," he said. "When he told me I was able to shoot the 3, my eyes just lit up. I had a smile from ear to ear. Coach Skinner really didn't allow me to expand my game.
"I knew I was capable of shooting the 3-ball but I was never given the opportunity. Coach Donahue saw that stroke and he told me `you need to shoot more often.' I knew I had the range but I just had to get my confidence back and Coach Donahue helped restore that confidence that I needed."
Raji and Joe Trapani, the Eagles' other forward, are difficult matchups for opponents because both can operate inside and also step out and shoot the 3.
"They stretch your whole defense," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, "so you've got to defend the 3-point shot through your top four positions. It's something you have to be able to understand, that you've got to go out that far."
Raji said his ability to shoot 3-pointers opens opportunities for his teammates and for himself to drive to the basket. He uses that advantage against bigger defenders. Conversely, he often finds himself guarding bigger players.
"I feel like I've been doing a pretty good job," he said. "There are some bigger guys and some stronger guys but I feel like I hold my own against them. But just as I have a tough time guarding some of them, they also have a tough time guarding me."
Defense is the area Donahue wants to improve for the Eagles' last nine ACC contests. They rank 10th in the conference in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 46.6 percent.
"We have to figure out ways to improve our defense," Donahue said. "It's not just the players, it's me figuring out a way to put guys in certain positions strategically (using) different personnel, and Corey's all part of that. We've got to figure out ways to help him out defensively."
Raji said the team has shown spurts of good defense but when fatigue sets in "we tend to take plays off on defense." Improvement is crucial for the remainder of the season.
"Having the consistency on the defensive end, that will determine how the season will turn out," he said. "If we defend the basketball we'll win games and if we don't defend that well we'll lose games that we need to win."
Defense, of course, will be on Raji's mind Sunday when he watches his brother play nose tackle for the Packers. From not having much interest in football, Raji has turned into an avid fan.
"It's been tremendous watching my brother have the season that he's had," he said, "and to play in one of the biggest games in the world. It's a blessing to be able to have somebody that close to me (play) in a game such as that."
By the way, there's a third Raji brother, 15-year-old Ade (pronounced a-day). He's also talented, but not in athletics.
"He plays the saxophone and he's pretty good," Corey said with a touch of pride.
B.J. Raji scored a touchdown on an interception against Chicago in the NFC championship game. His hip-swiveling end zone celebration - it resembled a bear with a hula hoop - became a YouTube sensation.
"His dance? I don't know where that came from," Corey Raji said. "I knew he was light on his feet but I didn't know he had dance moves like that. I called him and we just laughed. Nobody knows what they're going to do when they get a touchdown, and that being his first, it was the excitement and everything like that."
Raji will be watching with intense interest and cheering for his brother come Sunday. So how will it turn out?
He responded with a long "hmmmmmmmm" before answering.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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