“I think from top to bottom we have more talent, more potential.” Normally, the coach of a team sporting seven freshman doesn’t approach this level of optimism.
Fresh off last season’s introduction to the harsh realities of ACC basketball, Jim Christian still projects a quiet confidence about his players when discussing his team. The second-year head coach has no qualms about the large-scale rebuilding he has been tasked with, replacing nine players from his inaugural team. “It’s nothing that I didn’t foresee,” Christian said. In fact, the large roster turnover may actually be the reason for his unbridled optimism.
Last season, Christian was handed a roster consisting largely of former coach Steve Donohue’s players. Cobbling together a productive roster from those remains proved nearly impossible, even with the aid of graduate transfers Aaron Brown and Dimitri Batten. Given the opportunity to outfit a roster with players of his choice, Christian believes he has refitted the team’s depth. He also feels that he has compiled a group of players who fit his system, multifaceted players with “great length on the perimeter” and the capability to play multiple positions.
Even so, how justified is Christian’s confidence in this team? A look at the offensive and defensive capabilities of his young roster should shed a bit more light on the subject.
If Christian’s confidence was based on a particular facet of the team, it would likely be his offense. This might seem a bit strange, given that departing players accounted for 85.3 percent of all shots BC took last season, as well as 79.4 percent of all minutes played. Those numbers paint the picture of a gutted lineup, a team that would likely have significant issues retaining its level of production. This hypothetical picture becomes even more dire when considering which players left.
With the departure of Olivier Hanlan, the Eagles simultaneously lost their best scorer and primary playmaker. Last season, Hanlan’s usage rate, the percentage of team possessions while he was on the floor that ended with him taking a shot, shooting free throws, or committing a turnover, was 29.5 percent. He also assisted on 29.1 percent of all field goals made while he was on the court. Only Miami’s Angel Rodriguez matched that combination of numbers among ACC players last season.
The Eagles have lost a significant piece of their offense, an irreplaceable player. Despite this, hidden behind all the noise surrounding the team’s dependence on Hanlan lies the fact that Christian’s offensive scheme actually impressed in Year One.
For Christian, his offense boils down to two things: spacing and ball movement. The aim is to never allow the ball to stick too long in any player’s hands, keeping the defense in constant motion. Guards and wings make quick passes to each other, cutting to space immediately after. The big men serve a dual purpose in the offense. On certain plays, they simply serve as traditional screeners, working to free a guard from his defender. On other plays, the big actually initiates part of the offense, receiving the ball above the 3-point line. He will then usually execute a dribble handoff with a guard, setting up a quick pick and roll.
At the beginning of the possession, the ball is often entered to a perimeter player on one of the wings. After screening and cutting, the ball is reversed to the other side of the floor, where BC begins to attack the defense. Many times, the setup on this side of the floor involves three men: the ball handler, a big man, and another guard.
In the example above—a 3-pointer for Brown—the ball handler, Hanlan, gets the ball and a screen from the big man, Dennis Clifford. Coming around the screen, the ball handler has a vast array of options, depending on where the defense decides to send help. He can stop and shoot a jumper, drive to the basket, hit the big man as he rolls to the hoop, or swing the ball across the court to the other guard if his defender runs into the lane to bump the rolling big man to prevent an easy dunk. As Brown’s defender drops momentarily to bump Clifford, Hanlan passes to him for a fairly open three.
This play is by no means a set play for Christian, as he prefers a “more reactionary” offense, where his players simply adjust and play on the fly. While Christian doesn’t prefer to pigeonhole his players’ alignments, the above is certainly emblematic of how his offense creates open looks by given the ball handler numerous options. He gives his guards an advantage with the constant motion, as they remain a half-step in front of their defenders throughout the play, putting them in position to dictate the defense’s rotation. The underrated brilliance of the system is that, in situations like the one shown above, it forces the defense to choose where to send help. It also ensures that the defense will have to momentarily leave one man open.
Christian’s system, though definitely aided by Hanlan’s presence, generated a quality shot portfolio for the Eagles’ last season. The team ranked 69th in the country in 3-point rate, indicating that the ball movement and the high pick-and-roll plays led to the right kind of shots. Some of those threes were hoisted as desperation attempts late in the shot clock, but a good amount of them were generated in the flow of the offense.
Despite the clean looks, BC shot just 32.4 percent from deep, a mediocre 250th nationally. This largely stems from the struggles of the supporting cast. Of the rotation players that attempted at least 25 threes, only Dimitri Batten shot over 31.6 percent. This season, capable 3-point shooting returns to the Heights, in the presence of Christian’s newest recruits. Graduate transfer Eli Carter, the likely starter at point guard, is never afraid to shoot the ball, boasting an average of 1.5 threes made per game over his collegiate career. The three freshman guards that figure to play key roles, A.J. Turner, Matt Milon and Jerome Robinson, are all dangerous from downtown.
Christian’s offense also creates quality looks inside the arc, as the Eagles shot 52.1 percent on two pointers last season, 36th best in Division-I basketball. Many of these looks came in the paint, either from pick-and-roll plays or from the frequent basket cuts that the offense encourages. Garland Owens should excel in that role this season, liberated from playing as more of a perimeter player, where his struggles from downtown become more noticeable. Owens’ quick first step and his ability to contort his body in the air will allow him to be efficient as a slasher.
In giving ball handlers an extra half-step on defenders, while also not forcing one player to break down a set defense repeatedly, the system allows players that might not be the greatest passers to function well. This will be especially important as Carter makes the transition to point guard this season. Over his career, Carter has mainly played shooting guard, eschewing much of the primary playmaking duties. He has averaged 1.9 assists to 2.2 turnovers per game across his stops at Rutgers University and the University of Florida, while not displaying great creativity or advanced dribbling ability.
In this offense, Carter’s limitations may still be noticeable, but they should be mitigated to a degree. In addition, the presence of Robinson should help lighten his load. Robinson has been a revelation in training camp, taking the other starting guard spot opposite Carter. In BC’s opening exhibition against Bentley University and throughout early practices, Robinson has shown a crafty handle and a patience that belies his inexperience. He displays an ability to score around the basket, with an assortment of layups and floaters, while also being able to find his teammates.
During the 2014 NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose teams have become known for their brilliant passing sequences, implored his squad to continue passing the ball, saying, “You move it or you die.” That statement holds true for BC’s offense this season. The young talent, coupled with the lack of elite passing and ball handling, makes the Eagles rather poorly equipped to handle set half-court defenses or late shot-clock scenarios where isolation plays predominate.
In these situations, Carter will likely be the go-to playmaker, simply owing to his veteran status. With his limited handle, Carter will likely be forced into tough isolation jumpers, unable to break down the defense consistently. He has the ability to make them, but that is not a recipe for efficient offense.
Another way to generate offense when your system stalls is through post play. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they lack a featured post scorer. Dennis Clifford may be 7-foot-1, but he has never been the type of player that demands the ball on the block. He sometimes struggles to get clean looks at the basket, despite his height advantage. This usually occurs when he takes a long time to set up his post move, often a turnaround jump hook with the left hand. When Clifford take one, hard dribble and moves toward the middle of the floor, he has much better luck. In addition, in those situations, he has positioned himself to kick the ball out to a teammate.
As Christian wants to feature a “four-guard-ish type lineup,” the Eagles will often struggle against an opponent’s size. This will hurt them in two key areas: at the free-throw line and on the offensive glass. Last season, BC ranked 230th in the country in free throw rate, indicative of a team that struggled to get to the rim and draw fouls. This season, with the loss of Hanlan, that number might go down even further.
On the offensive glass, BC’s offensive rebounding rate of 23.9 percent was 311th nationally. Compounding their lack of size, Clifford struggled on the offensive boards last season, posting the second-lowest offensive rebound rate of any ACC rotation player who was at least 6-foot-10. Unable to generate second-chance points, which can lead to easy layups and open 3-pointers, the Eagles face more pressure to generate quality looks with their first shot of a particular possession.
Defense figures to be the area where the Eagles struggle the most this year. Here, unlike the offense, the lack of experience will really hurt. According to Ken Pomeroy, BC was the nation’s sixth-most experienced team last season, buoyed by its two graduate transfers. This season, applying Pomeroy’s method to the rotation used in the Bentley exhibition, BC’s experience score would have ranked them 323rd in Division I last season.
First, lack of experience will hurt the Eagles in mental mistakes and miscommunications. With a bevy of similar sized guards and wings, the Eagles can usually switch on screens that don’t involve the opponent’s center. While this provides a viable way to short circuit a play, miscommunication can leave someone wide open.
A more concrete example would be the Eagles’ pick-and-roll defense. Like most teams, BC wants to prevent ball handlers driving down the middle of the lane, as it often causes the defense to collapse and yield open threes. To combat this, when a ball handler near a sideline attempts to use a screen to get into the middle of the floor, BC will “ice” the pick and roll.
As seen in the image above, the man guarding the ball handler will step between the screen and his man, forcing the ball away from the middle of the floor. The big man will then slide into the path that the ball handler has been forced into. This strategy prevents chaotic breakdowns when done correctly.
A young team like BC can miscommunicate the coverage on a play like that. In early practices, this mistake occurred a few times. If either the guard or the big man involved in the play doesn’t get to their proper spot, the ball handler has a clear path to the rim.
In addition to miscommunication, BC’s inexperience will result in deficiencies on the boards and in frequent fouling. Last season, BC’s opponents rebounded 29.9 percent of their missed shots, the 211th worst mark in the country. In addition, BC committed a foul on nearly 25 percent of all defensive plays, allowing opponents to score 23 percent of their points at the charity stripe, ranking a paltry 283rd.
Last year’s team was undersized, but they compensated with veteran focus. Despite this, they still committed heaps of fouls and struggled to keep opponents off the boards. This season, the young guards will likely struggle with their responsibility to help rebound. Against Bentley, a team with no player taller than 6-foot-6, BC conceded a whopping 14 offensive rebounds. ACC opponents will exploit this weakness repeatedly unless it is addressed. Defensive rebounding is not solely on Clifford—rather, it’s a team effort that requires focus across the board.
Christian may not be entirely wrong in proclaiming that his team has more talent that last year’s unit, but the experience factor cannot be overlooked. It will take a long time for a team this young to develop. He readily concedes this fact, knowing that “figuring out a lot of things along the way is going to be a challenge.” Offensively, the team may perform at higher levels than last year’s unit, with better perimeter shooting pushing the scoring past last year’s 65.8 points per game. As the offense improves, the defense figures to hit a few roadblocks, with young players forced to quickly learn the nuances of high level defense.
Overall, Christian is correct that there appears to be a good deal of promise for a program that has recently suffered through some lean years. While this year’s team may not show that potential in the win column, it can lay the groundwork for team success in the coming seasons. Taking a cue from its coach’s confidence, BC basketball fans may finally have a reason to smile.
Featured Image by Daniella Fasciano / Heights Editor