Eagles Plagued by Poor Ball Screen Defense in Loss to Pitt

Entering a battle for last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference on Wednesday night, Boston College men’s basketball had lost seven consecutive games, while Pittsburgh had lost eight straight. Presented with the most winnable game remaining on their schedule, hopes were high that the Eagles would play with passion and energy against a Panthers team mired in the program’s longest losing streak since the 2011-12 season. A sprained ankle for Pitt’s Jamel Artis, the ACC’s leading scorer, on the first play of the game offered the Eagles a prime opportunity to seize control of the game. And when Jerome Robinson found a cutting Connar Tava under the hoop with a slick dime to push BC’s lead to 27-18, it appeared that the Eagles had once again uncovered a winning formula.

But against the worst-shooting team in the conference—Pitt entered the night shooting just 41.5 percent from the field in ACC play—the Eagles’ defensive struggles from the past month reared their ugly head yet again. Backed by an extended 22-6 run that spanned the final six minutes of the first half and the first two of the second half, Pitt reclaimed the lead in dominating fashion. Never able to get the game closer than six points the rest of the way, the Eagles dropped their eighth consecutive game, 83-72.  

The run was punctuated by a Sheldon Jeter fastbreak slam off of a nifty behind the back feed from Cameron Johnson, prompting Jim Christian to leap out of his seat and angrily call a timeout.

After the game, Christian was extremely disappointed with the defensive effort and execution that BC (9-16, 2-10 Atlantic Coast) brought to such an important game, particularly in the second half, where Pitt (13-11, 2-9) scored 52 points and shot an incredible 68.2 percent from the field. He felt that the players needed to have more cohesion on that end of the floor.

“To be honest, there’s certain times you can get through to them and there’s certain times where they have to get through to one another,” Christian said. “We didn’t have anyone leading the way to seize [the game].”

Three Up

1.) Mo Jeffers Scoring—The Delaware graduate transfer had his best offensive game in maroon and gold, scoring a season-high 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He was active from the outset against a defense whose frequent switching created mismatches in the post or left unplanned openings.

Here, Pitt’s Michael Young attempts to pass off Jeffers to Jeter, as he runs to the other side of the floor. The Panthers’ center appears to be completely unaware that Young has called for a switch, following Robinson up top and turning his back to Jeffers. With a nice slip to a vacated spot under the basket, Jeffers basically manufactures an open dunk for himself.

Jeffers also displayed deft touch in the post, particularly with his right hand.

In the first clip, after catching the ball in a crowded paint, Jeffers does a nice job establishing his left foot as a pivot and stepping across with his right foot, putting his defender on his back. From there, a simple jump hook gets him a basket. In the second clip, Young sits on Jeffers’ front shoulder, leaving the baseline open. Showing good situational awareness, Jeffers uses a drop step to reach the open space and finishes with his right hand, drawing a foul in the process. The big man even managed to hit a fadeaway jump shot from the post, displaying surprising balance.

2.) Ky Bowman Off the Dribble—Although hampered by three first-half fouls, Bowman still managed to put together a solid performance, scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists, while committing just one turnover, his fewest in an ACC game. He drilled four 3-pointers, including three off the dribble. Many young players struggle mightily when creating their own threes, as opposed to the juicier catch and shoot opportunities. Robinson, now shooting just 32.8 percent from downtown, has been a great example of the stark difference in difficulty between the two types of shots. But Bowman has shown a knack for hitting these more difficult threes of late.

While in the first clip he quickly dribbles back to his right hand before shooting, on all three of the shots, he is moving to his left. It seems that Bowman prefers to dribble with his left hand before shooting, not uncommon for a right-handed player. Additionally, on all three attempts, he uses a hop before the shot to gather himself, ensuring all of his momentum is transferred upwards, allowing him to remain balanced throughout the shooting motion. His ability to explosively attack the rim gives him space on these attempts, as his defender must keep himself in position to wall off any drives to the paint.

Pitt coach Kevin Stallings was extremely impressed with Bowman after the game.

“Gosh he’s good,” Stallings raved. “How’d that boy get out of the state of North Carolina?”

3.) Tava Cleans the Boards—While he struggled offensively and was almost powerless over Young when he had the ball—Pitt’s undersized center finished with 30 points and shot eight free throws—Tava turned in an excellent performance on the boards, securing nine defensive rebounds. No other BC player had more than two defensive boards. Frequently, Tava was tasked with boxing out Young and keeping the Panthers’ best interior player from generating extra possessions.

For the most part, he succeeded. He rarely lost track of his man and always made sure to position himself so that he could leverage Young away from the rim, as seen in his movement throughout the first clip. In the second clip, Tava gets low and manages to box Young out of the paint, before securing the board. While it’s not flashy and certainly didn’t tip the scales in this game, Tava’s rebounding fundamentals are just one of the many commonly unseen reasons why Christian unflinchingly trusts the Western Michigan graduate transfer.

Three Down

1.) Second Half Ball Screen Defense—After holding Pitt to 39.3 percent shooting in the first half, the Eagles’ defense struggled mightily in the second half. A big component of their difficulties stemmed from how the team defended the pick and roll, frequently allowing ball handlers into the middle of the lane.

“We blew ball screen coverage early in the second half three or four or five times,” Christian said. “The ball kept coming downhill.”

In the first half, BC kept the ball out of the middle fairly well. In the clip above, Johnson comes off of a screen from Young. While Jordan Chatman trails over the top of the screen, Tava hedges hard, stepping into the path of the ball handler and forcing him away from the middle. Johnson gives up his dribble and passes to Young. As this happens Jeffers yells to Tava and the two swap assignments, with Tava scurrying back to Jeter in the paint and Jeffers hustling over to contest Young’s shot. In the second half, this active, communicating defense broke down.

On this play, Johnson receives a handoff from Jeter, which functions as a very quick pick and roll. Chatman, defending Johnson, gets caught behind the play and is forced to trail over the top of Jeter’s screen. A.J. Turner, defending Jeter, appears to take a step over to Johnson, but instead opts to stick with Jeter, giving up a free path to the rim. It didn’t appear to be a gameplan decision, as the Eagles didn’t have much of a problem giving Jeter shooting space on previous plays. Turner has to cover for Chatman, switching onto Johnson, or at least step out to hinder his path to the rim. Instead, the tall guard gets downhill and dishes to Artis for an easy layup under the rim.

Twice more in the second half, Pitt penetrated into the lane and dished to an open player in the exact same spot, the result of poor defensive communication and late rotations, much to the displeasure of Christian.

2.) Guarding Young—The senior center displayed an incredibly diverse offensive game, showcasing brute strength in the post, as well as perimeter dribbling and shooting. For the majority of the game, Christian had Tava defend Young. Despite giving up three inches to his mark, Tava’s solid 250- pound frame gave him a decent chance of handling post ups and his deceptive quickness and basketball IQ allowed him to stick with Young on drives to the basket and recover back to him, after helping a screened teammate, on pick and rolls. However, Young’s talent overcame these obstacles.

Here, he blows past Tava and finishes on the opposite side of the rim, eluding the help defense of Robinson. The threat of Young’s jumper forces Tava to play closer to him, presenting openings for a dribble attack.

Additionally, despite actually weighing 15 pounds less than Tava, Young had no issue backing him down in the post, before using his height advantage to turn and shoot over the top of his defender. He drew several fouls on Tava in the paint and when BC elected to double him, he carved up the Eagles’ defense with incisive passes to cutters.

 

Occasionally, Christian tried Popovic on Young to prevent those brutalizing post ups. However, this switch merely flipped Young’s advantage from height to quickness. Against the Bosnian freshman, he almost exclusively made use of his face up game, blowing past Popovic with little difficulty and getting teammates open shots, as seen in the first clip. When Popovic sagged off him, fearing a blow by, Young comfortably dribbled into jump shots like the one in the second clip.

No matter who BC tried on him, Young found a way to counter. With a skilled big man that possessed the ability to exploit any matchup, there was little Christian could do but to hope he missed shots.

3.) Turner Slumping—Turner is officially in a major slump. Wednesday night, the sophomore wing didn’t score a single point, missing all four shots—all 3-pointers—that he attempted. He has scored just 12 points combined in his last four games and has shot a measly 21.1 percent from the field in those contests. Against Pittsburgh, Turner’s offensive rating, the number of points BC would have scored if the team’s performance with him on the court was extended over 100 possessions, was an anemic 36 according to kenpom.com, the lowest on the team and a far cry from his season average of 117.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the performance was the lack of aggression Turner displayed. He has never been the most demonstrative or aggressive player on the court for Christian, but on Wednesday night, he seemed mostly content to float about the perimeter, rarely venturing into the paint. Additionally, the offensive struggles have begun to impact his defensive performance a bit. After the game, Christian was pressed on what’s gone wrong with the former top recruit.

“I wish I could answer questions like that,” he said. “All I can do is be behind him and believe in him.”

Turner’s confidence and shooting performance will ultimately be the key in BC’s hunt for another ACC victory. Serving as a versatile wing defender and secondary creator, an engaged Turner perfectly complements the more ball-dominant Bowman and Robinson. If he can’t break free from this skid, winning another game will prove exponentially more difficult.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor