CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The first sign that the basketball season has come to Boston College is the line of students in front of the ticket window at Conte Forum.

A few hundred have usually gathered by the time the window opens.

The first sign that this basketball season was going to be different came for BC starters Craig Smith and Louis Hinnant in the early afternoon of Sept. 27. They were leaving their dorm to shoot baskets.

And there it was in front of them: the line.

“I had never seen anything like that before,” Smith said. “There were thousands of them and the tickets weren’t even going on sale until the next day.”

There has always been buzz on campus for games against Big East rivals such as UConn and Syracuse, but the roar has been deafening for the Eagles debut season in the ACC. The Eagles will play host to Duke, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and N.C. State.

The Eagles had found a way to sneak up on the Big East the last couple of seasons. They always began unranked. Then coach Al Skinner’s team would grind opponents down and finish a well-seeded NCAA Tournament team.

That’s not the case this year. The Eagles are getting plenty of respect – a No. 11 preseason ranking.

“OK, so we got some respect, but people should know we also won’t be changing our game,” Skinner said.

“People everywhere I think expected we’d be near the bottom in the ACC,” said Smith, a bruising 6-7 senior who averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds last season.

“We knew we could compete, but what did anyone else know?”

Including Smith, the Eagles return four starters – Hinnant, 6-7 Jared Dudley and 6-6 Sean Marshall are the others – from a 25-5 team. They will add 6-10 John Oates to make their starting lineup as deep as anyone’s in their new conference.

But Skinner won’t allow his players to become enamored with their high preseason ranking.

“It’s nice people acknowledge that we could be good,” he said. “I’m fine with coming through the front door this time.”

(c) 2005, New York Daily News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-15-05 1950EST

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