Heckmann, Strong Second Half Defense Keys To Eagles Going Forward

The numbers haven’t been gaudy, the highlights haven’t been flashy, and the performances haven’t been dominant, but there’s little denying that this Boston College basketball team knows how to win games.

In what has become the theme of their season, the Eagles knocked off Binghamton Sunday afternoon 63-49—a win driven by swarming the opposing offense with aggressive, physical man-to-man defense, converting opponents’ turnovers into easy buckets and grinding out just enough offense in the half court.

Led by Dimitri Batten and Olivier Hanlan, the Eagles returned to their familiar style of play, following Thursday night’s anomaly, when the Eagles put up 85 points but allowed a 1-8 Maine team to score 74 of their own. After the game, coach Jim Christian and Hanlan both attributed today’s victory to a renewed focus on defense and the team sticking to their game plan.

The team has found its calling card early on in Christian’s regime, rebranding itself as a long-armed defensive menace, whose effort never allows any game to truly slip out of reach. While the team knows that its offense likely won’t have the firepower to blow away opponents, it has the veteran savvy necessary to work for enough buckets to win low-scoring, defensive contests. For the Eagles to build a successful identity going forward, Christian must keep two things in mind.

1) Patrick Heckmann is a Matchup Nightmare

Necessity is the mother of invention. Four games ago, facing an injury to starting power forward Eddie Odio, Christian needed to plug a hole in his starting five. Instead of going with foul-prone reserve Will Magarity, the coach opted to insert Batten into the lineup, bumping starting small forward Patrick Heckmann up to the four. The move couldn’t have worked out any better, as the Eagles have since gone on a four game winning streak. The coach appears to have found a starting lineup he’s pleased with, as Heckmann retained his starting role at the four despite Odio’s return today.

Heckmann’s versatility makes this unconventional lineup work. His ability to do virtually anything on the basketball court allows the Eagles to move him around. At the four, Heckmann stretches the floor, providing valuable spacing for an offense that struggles to score at times. While shooting a dismal 15 percent on 3-pointers so far this year, Heckmann is a proven threat from downtown, converting at a 36 percent rate over his first three years at BC. This forces opponents to close out when he receives a pass above the arc and to stick tightly to him at all times.

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Playing Heckmann at the four forces a potential rim protector to step away from the hoop and defend all the way to the 3-point line. Entire defensive strategies are compromised by a player like this. Additionally, while the act of defending a 3-point threat might not be a problem for a smaller player, the power forwards that defended Heckmann recently had a hard time marking him. This allows him to catch the ball on the move and use his quickness to cut into the paint, where he can use his above average passing vision to find teammates who have gotten open as a result of the defensive breakdown.

Since the move, Heckmann increased his assist totals, averaging nearly three dimes per game at the four. On defense, though he may give up some size to burlier post players, Heckmann’s quickness allows him to wrack up steals and his sound technique allows him to battle these players on the block. Overall, look for Heckmann to retain his starting gig as long as he continues to confound opposing bigs.

2) The Defense Can Start Strong, But Often Fades Late

On a negative note, the Eagles once again exhibited their disturbing tendency to start out strong on defense—ratcheting up the ball pressure and forcing turnovers—but ultimately fail in sustaining that effort in the second half. Against Binghamton, the team forced 12 first half turnovers and just four second half turnovers. The clean and physical defense in the first half also gave way to sloppy and tired defending in the second half, as the Eagles committed numerous fouls, sending Binghamton to the line for 18 free throws in the half. Christian after the game believed this shift came from a lack of effort.

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While effort played a role in the team not playing up to its usual standards on the defensive side of the ball, it’s somewhat alarming that this has already happened a few times this season, such as against UMass. At some point, the explanation might not be the players giving half-hearted effort. In today’s game, several players appeared to tire in the second half. Look for the team to slightly tone down the aggressiveness in the opening half in order to conserve enough energy for a comprehensive 40-minute defensive showing. If every half could be like today’s first half, the team’s defense will be well on its way to national prominence.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff