Too Many Flaws Plagued BC This Year
By Jack Stedman | Assoc. Sports Editor
The jury is still out on whether Jim Christian’s first season as head coach of the Boston College basketball team was a success.
The season should not be considered a failure, as Christian has proven that he has a clear vision and foundation for the program and has drawn the praise of coaches like Rick Pitino and Mike Brey as a result. That praise, however, mainly stems from Christian’s ability to get the most out what was left for him from previous years. For as much talent that Christian has in that regard, this does not necessarily guarantee sustainable results down the road. And while Christian coached his team to close games against elite talent, the team’s many remaining flaws proved too fatal for this season to be a success in terms of how players played.
Shortcomings With The Big Men
Without a doubt, BC’s biggest weakness this year was interior game, both offensively and defensively, a problem which created an extremely lopsided team. In a conference featuring Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell, among others, this is inexcusable.
Finishing the year as one of the few teams in the ACC with a negative rebounding margin, BC was outmatched down low in nearly every game this year. Notre Dame utilized Bonzie Colson and Zach Auguste to dismantle the Eagles, while Georgia Tech nearly ended BC’s season one game early by completely dominating the boards, out-rebounding BC 43-26.
On offense, Dennis Clifford never developed a strong post game. As the season came to a close, the excuse of not having played the past two years became more and more fragile.
In one of his best performances of the season against Notre Dame in February—the same game in which Colson and Auguste scored with ease over him—Clifford relied heavily on having his mid-range shots fall. And against North Carolina in the ACC tournament, Clifford increasingly found himself uncomfortably with the ball in his hands at the perimeter.
In the end, the Eagles were never able to improve the sieve of interior defense, and the lack of low-post offense put even more pressure on Hanlan and the guards to produce, which is asking a lot from a group of streaky 3-point shooters.
Falling Short In The End
Evident in the loss to Louisville, Christian showcased a knack for being able to keep his team in games. Christian added a new-look zone defense at the Cardinals, and as a result, the Eagles would stay close to their competitors for about the first 35 minute of games. The same goes for the loss to Virginia, a highly competitive game up until the last five minutes.
More importantly, though, the Eagles failed to finish against more beatable teams like Miami and Pittsburgh in the ACC. More failures to finish close games were hidden in the doldrums of non-conference play. Before Patrick Heckmann missed multiple chances to bury the Hurricanes and the Panthers, the Eagles fell short to Minutemen of UMass Amherst and the Trojans of USC to close out 2014.
For as well as BC played in the first half of games, the team unraveled just as much down the stretch. There is still a long way to go.
Too Soon To Predict The Future
Steve Donahue took over a similar team to this year’s in his first season—a senior-heavy team with a proven star in Reggie Jackson. After doing very well in first season, earning a No. 1 seed in the NIT, he failed to follow up on that initial success before being fired three seasons later. After losing Jackson to the draft and and Corey Raji and others to graduation, Donahue couldn’t build his own team and the program went downhill, culminating in the eight-win season last year.
Replace Reggie Jackson with Olivier Hanlan, Corey Raji with Patrick Heckmann, and Donahue with Christian, and you are left with this season for the Eagles, in which BC exceeded expectations. But as the situation with Donahue proved, the first season should not be an automatic harbinger of future success.
Although Christian has proven to be more than capable of creating a positive team culture with a defensive spine, he has not proven himself in the most important aspect of being a college coach: recruiting. Taking the position of head coach only a few months before the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Christian only had time to bring on one freshman, Idy Diallo, who only featured in one preseason game before an injury. Christian instead relied heavily on his two fifth-year transfers Aaron Brown and Dimitri Batten.
To solidify himself as a successful coach in Chestnut Hill, Christian first has to bring in at least two full recruiting classes and build his team with his own players. While he certainly provided an immediate upgrade from last year, success on the Heights has come to be defined by NIT berths at worst, and solid NCAA tournament seeds at best.
Until Christian stops relying on inherited NBA-level talent and transfers, no season can be considered a success, especially given how much the team fell short this year, and the jury is still cautious about looking into the future of this program.
Jim Christian Proved Capable Of Rebuilding
By Chris Noyes | Heights Staff
More so than in the NBA—where talent breeds wins—coaching is a huge driver for success in college basketball. In that regard, BC’s basketball season should be considered a winning one, even if the record indicates otherwise. Given the depths into which the program has sunk recently, the performance of first year head coach Jim Christian during this trying season offers Eagles fans great hope for the future, as the team appears to have found a coach that has the ability to scheme a limited roster into respectability sooner rather than later.
The first thing that a coach must do to establish a winning environment is to change the culture of the team. Bad habits are not to be tolerated and accountability is a must. From the moment of his hiring, Christian began to erode the unacceptable culture of losing fostered under unceremoniously deposed former coach Steve Donahue. Players hustled back after missed shots, dove on the floor for loose balls, and played cohesively within Christian’s scheme. Botched assignments or lack of hustle were met with an angry diatribe from the coach and a rapid benching. Given a roster sorely lacking an interior presence, he instilled the need in his players to fight from the opening tip, a lesson clearly adopted and symbolized by the grit Patrick Heckmann showed in competing with opposing power forwards.
On the offensive end, Christian emphasized smart execution and sharing the ball. He empowered the players on his team to trust each other and play for each other. Working together to create an open driving lane for Olivier Hanlan or to spring Heckmann for an open three, the team bought into Christian’s mentality. Bringing in veteran graduate transfers Dimitri Batten and Aaron Brown, Christian instilled a business-like environment around the program. Even if they were going to be operating under a severe talent deficiency, maximum effort and competitiveness were expected. Christian pushed his players to take pride in their effort and desire to win. The team’s culture rapidly shifted from that of a team playing out the game to a team that fought for every inch on the court, a determined group that opposing coaches admitted they did not want to play, recognizing Christian’s tremendous changes.
To further raise his team’s play, a coach must establish his tactical acumen and have his players buy into what he preaches, trusting their coach to put them in position to win a game. The new coach has drawn effusive praise all season for his innovative basketball mind, earning praise specifically from Hall of Famer Rick Pitino—plaudits that do not come easily. Offensively, despite only having one reliable shooter, ball handler, and top-notch ACC caliber starter (Olivier Hanlan), BC’s offense actually ranked a respectable 99th in the NCAA per Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, despite playing the 33rd-ranked schedule of opposing defenses. Christian’s offensive scheme was the main reason why Olivier Hanlan led all Power 5 conference players in conference scoring average at 21.9 points per game. Keeping him in constant motion and running him off of a myriad of screens, the coach freed Hanlan for many more open looks than opposing defenses wanted to yield.
Christian put his team in great positions to succeed, creating countless open threes in pick-and-roll action, looks that were there even if Hanlan was not handling the ball. While they could not capitalize on the open threes inside the arc, the Eagles shot 52.1 percent, good for 36th in the nation. Christian’s use of Hanlan coming off of screens allowed others, like Brown and Heckmann, to attack their men off the dribble with the defense already distracted. Floor spacing was often excellent, leading to clean looks everywhere.
On defense, despite having only one heavy-minutes player over 6-foot-6 (7-foot-1 Dennis Clifford), Christian crafted a system that ranked 147th in the country by Pomeroy’s stats, BC’s highest ranking by that metric since 2010. Knowing that his team did not stand much of a chance once the ball got into the paint or the post, BC often hedged on ball screens to deflect penetration. Keeping the ball on the perimeter was a focus of the game plan, especially given the high percentage looks most teams got once they broke down the defense. Despite trying to keep the ball outside, BC only allowed opponents to score 24.6 percent of their points from downtown, good for 49th in the country.
On both ends of the court, the players fully bought into the system Christian ran, showing great trust in their new coach. With effective tactical systems and a winning culture now in place, the environment is ripe for improvement. Add in the commitment of AJ Turner early in the season, and BC’s first top 150 recruit since 2007, the fruits of success reaped this season are already paving the way for the long road back to respectability, a journey Christian is confident his club will eventually make.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic