Notebook: Sloppy Interior, Transition Defense Haunts Eagles in Chapel Hill

boston college men's basketball

It’s no secret that Boston College men’s basketball is playing with an extremely short-handed team. Since Teddy Hawkins suffered a season-ending, non-contact knee injury in BC’s loss to Nebraska in late November, the Eagles have basically been playing with a six-man rotation. The guard trio of Ky Bowman, Jerome Robinson, and Jordan Chatman has been particularly taxed during the last six weeks. They’ve been forced to play close to 40 minutes every night and relied upon to create virtually all of the team’s offense.

Even with the upset over then-No. 1 Duke in early December and highly competitive play in their next three ACC games, BC fans knew that, eventually, the Eagles’ lack of depth, reliable frontcourt offense, and rebounding would cause problems.   

The nightmare scenario played out on Tuesday night. In a lackluster 96-66 defeat to No. 20 North Carolina (13-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast), BC (11-6, 2-3) was overwhelmed from the tip. Head coach Jim Christian’s squad was blitzed on both the offensive glass—UNC somehow recovered possession on 23 of their 39 missed shots—and in the paint—the Tar Heels outscored BC, 48-18, inside. UNC head coach Roy Williams’ team used a slew of easy buckets and a relentless pace to subdue the Eagles.

Junior Luke Maye abused BC defenders—particularly Nik Popovic—en route to a career high 32 points and 18 rebounds on 13-of-20 shooting. The former walk-on recovered his early season form at the worst time for the Eagles, having entered the game shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor over his last five games.

Three Up

1) Bowman’s Patience

After a rough start to the game—Bowman missed his first five 3-pointers and had several wild drives into a crowded paint that fueled UNC’s fastbreak—the sophomore point guard wound up having a decent performance. He finished with 21 points and five assists, on 8-of-18 shooting. Though he made some questionable shooting decisions, firing up a few ill-advised deep 3-pointers off the dribble, Bowman showed good patience later in the game, especially in pick and roll scenarios.

boston college men's basketball

For the majority of the game, UNC played lineups featuring four guards or wings. These like-sized players allowed the Tar Heels to switch screens across four positions, negating some of BC’s offensive potency. But Williams didn’t feel comfortable switching actions when the Eagles’ center was the one setting the screen, mostly because that would have forced Maye—who isn’t exactly fleet of foot—to guard Bowman or Robinson on the perimeter. Instead, the longtime Tar Heels coach had Maye shuffle his feet and stay level with the ball handler, before returning to his man once his teammate had successfully navigated the screen.

In the clip above, Bowman exploits that defense, stringing Maye along the perimeter long enough to create an easy passing window, before flinging a dime to a wide open Popovic, who rolls down the lane for an easy layup.

Bowman also used this patient approach to get himself shots.

boston college men's basketball

boston college men's basketball

In the first clip, as he comes around the screen, he hesitates slightly, momentarily convincing Maye that he’s abandoning his attack. With the UNC big man leaning the wrong way, Bowman explodes into the paint—aided by Joel Berry II slamming into his own teammate in pursuit of the ball—and throws down a strong right-handed slam when Cameron Johnson makes a business decision, deciding not to challenge the shot.

In the second clip, as Bowman comes around the first screen by Luka Kraljevic, UNC’s Sterling Manley is there to cut off his lane to the rim, allowing Berry II enough time to retreat back to his man. So the sophomore point guard pauses, waits for Manley to drop down towards the free throw line and then hits Berry II with a crossover, slamming him into another Kraljevic screen in the opposite direction. With Manley no longer near the ball, Bowman gets around the pick and rises up for an easy mid-range jumper.

2) Steffon Mitchell, Ace Glue Guy

One small benefit to Hawkins’ absence has been the emergence of Mitchell. The freshman forward from Shakopee, Minn. has quickly become the Eagles’ best on-ball defender—both on the perimeter and in the paint—and has shown incredible rebounding instincts. On a day BC struggled mightily to generate secondary possessions or prevent UNC from getting them, Mitchell was an exception to the rule.

boston college men's basketball

The freshman finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds, including five offensive boards—more than half of his team’s total for the night. The game marked the sixth time this year that Mitchell has had at least four offensive rebounds. He also showcased his defensive skills yet again, displaying an ability to switch onto any guard and the timing to block shots when beaten off the dribble. With two blocks on Tuesday, Mitchell now has 14 rejections in his last six games.

boston college men's basketball

Most importantly, he hit two of his four 3-point attempts.

boston college men's basketball

Mitchell entered the game shooting below 30 percent from downtown this season. Open triples, like the one shown above, will usually be available for him if he’s standing on the weak side of a Bowman or Robinson pick and roll, since his defender will likely abandon him to defang the Eagles’ initial play. For the sake of his team’s offensive spacing, it’s crucial that Mitchell develops an ability to knock down wide-open triples.

3) Robinson From Downtown

Robinson made three more 3-pointers Tuesday night, the seventh time this season he has hit at least that many shots from beyond the arc, equaling his total from all of last season. The junior guard is now shooting a scorching 57.6 percent on 3-pointers in five conference games.

boston college men's basketball

Last season—when he shot just 33.3 percent from downtown—Robinson took a lot of long-range shots off the dribble. This season, he has found much more success hunting for 3-pointers where he doesn’t need to dribble before shooting, either spotting up or running toward the ball with plenty of space to fire away. Robinson has gotten quite a few shots the way he does in the clip above, sprinting from one of the corners to the wing, where he shoots immediately after the ball gets pitched to him. He and Bowman have developed a nice chemistry, routinely searching for this look in transition.

Three Down

1) Sloppy in Transition

Though the Eagles’ defense was lackluster across the board, deficiencies on the break were particularly frustrating for Christian’s squad. BC was outscored, 19-2, in fastbreak points and allowed UNC to get a bevy of easy buckets early in the shot clock because of an inability to match up in transition. Part of the issue was poor floor balance on the offensive end.

boston college men's basketball

Numerous times, three or four Eagles ended offensive possessions below the foul line, with players crashing the offensive glass at inopportune times. When UNC secured the rebound, they often had 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 fastbreaks going the other direction. In the clip above, Robinson shoots a heavily contested corner 3-pointer off an inbound. Bowman—the inbounder—joins Kraljevic and Mitchell below the foul line, watching the ball land in Maye’s hands, resulting in a fastbreak layup for the Tar Heels.

boston college men's basketball

Even when BC properly balanced the floor on offense to stop easy fastbreaks, UNC managed to get open shots simply by pushing the ball up the floor and waiting for the Eagles to panic on defense. The play above highlights the issue. With Maye driving the ball into the paint, Chatman inexplicably gets caught sleeping, drifting aimlessly into the paint and leaving his man—Kenny Williams—wide open for a triple.

2) Crushed on the Boards

The Tar Heels, who entered Tuesday’s contest ranked third nationally in rebounding margin, outrebounded BC, 58-23, and inhaled a whopping 23 offensive rebounds. The performance dropped BC all the way from 69th to 140th nationally in offensive rebounding rate allowed, per KenPom.com.

boston college men's basketball

While UNC’s athleticism and size on the wings certainly gave it a physical advantage on the boards, a disturbing lack of box outs helped Williams’ team pad its stats. The issue was prevalent from the opening tip. On the second possession of the game, Johnson flew from the 3-point line to the rim for an uncontested putback dunk off of a missed Berry II three. Mitchell lost his man on the way to the rim and all the other Eagles were too focused on the ball to notice the Pittsburgh transfer storming into the paint.

boston college men's basketball

Poor defensive rebounding also plagued BC in transition. In the play above, as both Kraljevic and Chatman attack Williams’ drive to the rim, Manley sneaks in behind the ball. No one puts a body on him and the freshman center taps in the missed layup for an easy putback.

3) Paint Defense

While the Eagles certainly aren’t the most physically imposing team in the paint, especially since Hawkins’ injury, they have largely done a good job at keeping opponents away from the rim with team defense. But Tuesday night, Christian’s team didn’t play to its standard, as the Tar Heels outscored BC by 30 paints in the paint. Aside from inside baskets that were generated in transition and off offensive rebounds, BC still struggled to protect the rim in the half court, allowing a parade of layups and dunks.

boston college men's basketball

boston college men's basketball

boston college men's basketball

In particular, the Eagles struggled to defend curl plays—where a player runs from the baseline to the middle of the floor, curling around a teammate’s screen in the process. It’s a difficult play to defend, which is why Christian runs it frequently for Robinson, but BC had more trouble with it than usual on Tuesday, as seen in the clips above. The first play features a sloppy switch between Robinson and Chatman, before Popovic fails to recognize Chatman’s man has slipped around the screen for an open layup. Popovic also reacts a bit too late to protect the rim in third clip, where an aggressive challenge from Bowman forces Berry II into fumbling a makeable layup.

These types of efforts reflect a team-wide defensive breakdown for BC, something that must be corrected in the coming weeks, as the Eagles attempt to defend the best teams in the country.

Featured Image by Gerry Broome / AP Photo