New Boston College men’s basketball coach Jim Christian has been on the job for about two months now. He took over for Steve Donahue after the team finished the 2013-14 season with an 8-24 record, and now Christian is working to turn things around. He sat down to talk with The Heights yesterday about the offseason and to look ahead to next year. Christian also confirmed that rising senior Patrick Heckmann underwent knee surgery, but that he’s progressing ahead of schedule and should be ready to play by August.
Heights: How are things going so far?
Christian: It’s only a short period of time. It’s only been a couple of months, so you try to hit the ground running in all the different areas and learn everything you can about how the athletic program works and how our basketball program works. Meet with all those people and see how we can change things the way we like them. And then we start working with our guys. We’ve got them here for eight weeks and we get to work with them for two hours a week. So we just started doing all that and then obviously we’re recruiting three classes, because we still have scholarships for ’14s, ’15s, and ’16s. It’s everything all at once.
Heights: How are the workouts going?
Christian: Great. They’re summer workouts, I mean, I’m not worried about any of that. We just try to get to know each other, get better, they get an idea of how we do it. I’m not putting in anything, it’s mostly skill work.
We work on skill work every day, all year. It’s no different in the summer, it’s no different in the fall, it’s no different when we start, it’s no different in the middle of the year. I believe that you have to continue to get them better, you have to continue to get them more confident, and if you do that then the system stuff comes a lot easier. We’re going to have plenty of time to put that in. Right now, summer time for me is for them to understand how hard we have to work, how competitive we have to become, and to get better. We have to get better, otherwise we could have the best system in the world but if the players don’t get better then you kind of stagnate. We’re trying to keep getting them better.
Heights: Do you have the identity board set up for the summer or is that an in-season thing?
Christian: No, we don’t have time. We’re only out there for 40 minutes. We’re teaching. The way we break it down is we have two full-team days and then one small group day where we kind of implement our defense and some offensive schemes, categories—I would say situations that we’re looking for, things that we like. The small teaching days, that’s where we’ll really break down our defense, and really we’ll start doing more of that this week. Just how we want to play, terminology, so that when we get going in the fall all that stuff is kind of understood.
Heights: What kind of defensive system are you trying to set up with them?
Christian: I mean it starts with man, right? You’re going to be in man 95 percent of the time, so you better be able to understand it and understand our thing. It’s not complex. It’s effort, attitude, positioning.
Heights: How much film of last season have you watched?
Christian: None, I won’t watch one clip. It’s got nothing to do with me. I mean that sincerely, what am I going to watch film for? I don’t play that way. Everybody plays differently and looks for different things. I don’t want to have any prejudgments. They’re going to show me what they have when they’re out here. I really don’t care about that.
I mean, I’ll watch everything we do. So these small sessions, everything, I’ll watch every single clip that we practice and I’ll be showing them that. What I’d show last year—it’s not about me, it’s not about that, because the mentality has to be different and the mentality might be different. Change affects guys differently. I told them when I got here that everybody’s got a clean slate and I’m going to judge you on what you do. I’m going to judge you on how you work, on how much you work in the summer. We’ve challenged them. We have this giant board on the wall for the gun. Everybody on the team’s going to get 20,000 shots up this summer. That’s on their own. I’m not making them, but I am going to let them know if they’re falling behind.
Heights: You just told them 20,000, and they have to figure it out on their own?
Christian: Yeah, we have two GAs and they text them whenever they get it. Take a picture of the gun. Say that’s how many shots I got up, and they’re available to rebound and do other stuff. Unfortunately we don’t have any managers yet, but we’ll do that all year. It’s going to be eight weeks now and then once we start the year it’ll be a six week [program], and then continue all the way through the year.
You know, anything we can do to encourage them to invest in themselves, that’s what we have to do now. And that’s what it’s about.
Heights: So you’re not watching any film of last year, but you’ve mentioned before that this team has to get better defensively. Do you think it’s just focusing on effort and positioning and things like keeping your man in front that will solve those issues?
Christian: I think it’s just emphasis. It’s like anything else, you only become better when you really emphasize something. We have to get this group to buy into not accepting that anymore. I think our standard of what we expect from each other has got to be raised. It’s nothing technical. It’s all effort, attitude, and heart. They all know how to play. It’s not like we got out-schemed and they were dunking on us left and right. I know Steve and his staff spent an unbelievable amount of time on preparation, so now it’s mentality. What is the mentality? Can we take the drill and put it into live play? So it’s more of a competitive thing.
So what we do do, is we play a ton of one-on-one live now. And that’s what we’ll show today. Look at your effort, look at your positioning, look what you did here. There’s some technique things, but there’s more of a mentality thing and that’s where it starts. It starts with our individual ability to play the ball and then everybody else is understanding positioning-wise from there. Any good defensive team in the country, that’s what they do. And if we want to become a much better defensive team then we better understand and emphasize that right now. It’s emphasizing the competitive nature of it, the technique of it with the terminology with which we do, and putting that together with the hungriness of the team.
Heights: Dennis Clifford has struggled to get on the court for the past two years, how’s he looking?
Christian: He’s been great. He’s been the biggest surprise to me. His health and his conditioning have been phenomenal and his effort the whole—he was up for the first session and his six-week health-slash-effort and conditioning is really, really encouraging. If I had to give out an early-season MVP it would be him.
Heights: Do you go into the season with any sort of concerns about how much you use him?
Christian: I think I’ve got to visit with the doctors. I visit with them all the time to see what he can tolerate and what he can do, but he has not had any problems. Long term, we’ve got to be smart about it, but at the same time if he’s fine, he’s fine.
Heights: What have you seen from Olivier Hanlan since you’ve been here?
Christian: He’s what you expect. He’s a hard worker, he’s a great kid. I think when we lost those two guys [Joe Rahon and Ryan Anderson], he’s kind of made this more of his team. He’s spending more time with his teammates. I think he’s taking more ownership of the program in a lot of different ways—when we’ve had recruits up, when we’ve talked about things that we do, the way that we practice—he’s more vocal I guess, from what people have told me.
I think he’s getting that. I think he feels comfortable and I think he feels like it’s his turn to take over the ownership of the team with the seniors. The one thing we do have is we have a lot of experience. We’re probably the oldest team in the country. Those things help.
Heights: You guys announced that you picked up Idrissa Diallo, what are you expecting from him?
Christian: I couldn’t be more excited about him. He comes from a winning program and I think he understands it, but he gives us some things we don’t have. He’s another big, physical body, he’s athletic. The one thing that really stood out is that usually the big kids from Africa struggle to catch the ball, especially in traffic, but he’s got great hands. He’s one of those guys that—in the way that we do things and the amount of time we spend with skill instruction and development—he’s going to play a lot.
Heights: Outside of winning, obviously, what kind of things are you thinking about to get more students at the games?
Christian: I haven’t worried about it yet. We have a marketing team and we’ve put together a marketing plan. I’ve got so much going on right now, for me to say what am I going to do to get the students here—other than anything and everything we have to do—it’s hard to say specifically what we do. I think there are a lot of forces here that have to work. It’s not Jim Christian. I’m not a one-man band to get everybody to the game. But it’s got to be emphasized through our whole marketing department, the way we approach the season, and how we play and how our kids compete because I think that’s kind of what people want to see, and we have to utilize the resources—maybe increase the resources—toward getting them here. That’s kind of what we’ve talked about. I’ve had three or four meetings with marketing specifically about that. I think the community and our fan base, they tend to come, especially when the team does well, they come.
Heights: Yeah, that’s been the history here. If the team does well people usually show up.
Christian: I think that’s the way it is everywhere. You can’t hide behind that. At some point students have got to support it too. It’s always like the chicken and the egg, right? It’s like, well, if they win we’ll come. And we’ll say, well, if you come we’ll win. It’s somewhere in the middle. You’ve got to have both, you’ve got to have support, you’ve got to have a home court advantage in order to win. You have to, because you play against some of the best home court advantages in the country. We’ve really got to really reach out and extend ourselves, and I’m hoping that they have a little patience and tolerance with us and maybe see the effort and see the mentality and get behind that as well. I think that if we can do that it’ll help the team move forward, if we can create that home court advantage and take some pride in it, because it’s obviously needed.
Heights: What’s your approach to any advanced analytics or using Synergy and things like that?
Christian: I’m probably a Synergy-holic. It’s such a huge tool for me personally as we put our system in. I’m constantly trying to put things in or see what teams do. For our players to watch themselves and watch other players. I’m constantly sending them emails—well, once we get everything we can—emails of Synergy.
Analytics, you can take it or leave it, I actually believe in some of it. I think it’s just a measurement tool.
Heights: Are there certain metrics that you especially pay attention to?
Christian: I’ll look at our team. I’ll look our team offensively. I’ll at our team defensively. I’ll look at our opponents, because I think that they do tell a little bit of a story of what they emphasize. But in terms of Synergy it’s creating personnel edits—and Synergy for me is more a real tool for me to look at other people’s systems and how they attack different situations. Different sets and different things that we’re trying to create. I’m constantly on it.
Heights: Do you think it’s an advantage for you coming in that if you want to install new things you at least have veteran players who can maybe handle that better?
Christian: Well I think that we have guys that understand. They’re older so they’ve been through a lot. They’ve seen a lot of different things. They probably have a little bit better grasp than a guy who’s never been through it. It’s a little tough for freshmen—although they’re all freshmen for me. I think those things, again, are byproducts of me reading the team. I have to read and see how much time we need to spend on different things in order for them to grasp it. But I’m taking the approach that we’re teaching them everything from the ground up. There’s not one thing I’m assuming they know, in any aspect of it.
Heights: Yeah, there was that picture the other day of you teaching them closeouts and obviously they’ve seen that before.
Christian: We’ll do closeouts every day from the first day we hit the floor to the last day we hit the floor because it’s that important. It’s a habit.
Heights: Sort of on that note, do you have a philosophy on defending the 3-pointer, in terms of running people off the line or allowing some contested looks?
Christian: Our philosophy is that we don’t try to give up any strong-side threes, which means if the ball is being driven in that alley, we don’t leave the corner. We don’t. You bluff and you don’t give up the shot, that’s the easiest three. In terms of running people off the line, that’s more of a personnel thing to me than it is a team thing. Some people believe whatever they want, but I’m more of a personnel-driven philosophy, rather than this is our philosophy we’re doing this regardless of whoever we’re playing. Certain guys have to be run off the 3-point line, certain guys you have to short close to based on their personal skills. So I don’t know if you can do it that way anymore. But without question, the simple threes, the strong side kick, we’re not going to give that up. But to say we’re just going to run people off the 3-point line, well now we’re going to get driven to death. Who’s winning that battle? Because I think if you looked at it, [the players last year] weren’t getting beat by threes, they were getting beat because the other team was scoring it three feet from the basket, whether it be offensive rebounding, attacking the paint, forcing too many rotations—and we had bad matchups. So it’s more of an overall philosophy than “We’re going to do this.”
Heights: I’d assume the same thing applies to pick-and-roll defense then?
Christian: Well, pick-and-roll defense, you’re talking about a lot of different situations there. I don’t think there’s one philosophy to play ball screens. Not any more. I think if you do that, especially in the ACC, you’re going to get killed. So you’ve got to be able to defend pick-and-roll four ways. We were just talking about it with our staff, it’s funny that you bring it up, but there’s times you have to switch, there’s times you have to hard hedge, there’s time you have to push it down or ice it—whatever you call it, we call it ice—and there’s times you have to trap. So to say you’re going to guard pick-and-rolls one way, if you do that in this league you’re going to get killed. So you better be able to adjust it, you better be able to guard different ways. That’s a huge part of basketball now, because so much, I think, of college just emulates the NBA. That’s what’s going on, so college basketball—which if you look 15 years ago there weren’t nearly as many ball screens as you’re going to defend now. Multiple on a possession, late clock, end of game. You better understand those because to me it’s the difference between winning and losing.
Heights: How much time are you spending looking into the rest of the ACC teams and getting prepared for what they do?
Christian: I spend a lot of time on it. More than you think. Just to get a feel for the league, to get a feel for how teams play. Not that I don’t know. Because I’m the Synergy person that I am, I’ve been Synergizing a lot of these teams for years. Just kind of get a little feel for the flow of the game.
Heights: Some coaches would say that during the offseason they’re only going to focus on their team and their development.
Christian: I do both. I do both. The challenging part in this league is that there are so many different styles of play, and the people who play them are the best at what they do. If you surveyed coaches and said who’s the best zone team in the country, they’d tell you Syracuse. If they said who’s the best fullcourt pressure team back to match-up zone, they’d say Louisville. And there’s a bunch of them. Who’s one of the best man-to-man defensive teams, they’d tell you Virginia. So you’re talking about teams that are the best at what they do, so to not look at that right now, from both perspectives, would be naive.
Heights: That must be exciting for you, coming here and going up against that competition.
Christian: I love it. How could you not? It’s challenging, it’s fun challenging. If you love what you do, you want to compete with the best. It’s the same thing we’re telling kids. We tell kids when they come up here that if you want to play, you want to play against the best, and this is where the best go play. This is where they come.
It’s a challenge as a coach, it’s a challenge for the players. That’s the challenge for our returning players. You get a chance here to compete against the very best this game has. Are you ready? Are you putting in effort? Are you guys hungry? Are you as mentally tough as them? That’s the challenge.