Boston College men’s basketball forward Ervins Meznieks had logged just 21 minutes this season prior to Wednesday night’s game at Syracuse, so it was understandable that he’d be exceptionally eager to make an impact play when he checked into the Eagles’ eighth ACC game, midway through the second half.
As he leapt into the passing lane to snare a crosscourt feed intended for Frank Howard, left hand extending as far as physically possible, it looked as if that nervous energy had propelled the junior from Latvia to make his mark on the contest. With nothing but open court in front of him, Meznieks dribbled down the floor as fast as he could, headed for the kind of easy basket players dream about.
One step inside the foul line, he collected the ball in his right hand, rising up for a powerful finish, but as he neared the rim, Meznieks came to an unsettling realization—he had severely overestimated his horizontal leaping ability. Though he frantically tried to correct his mistake—attempting to lay the ball in on his way down—it grazed harmlessly off the front of the rim and fell to the floor.
Meznieks’ stellar play followed by a painful gaffe summed up the Eagles’ night in the Carrier Dome quite succinctly. With a strong shooting performance from beyond the arc canceled out by a complete defensive breakdown, BC dropped its second game in a row, 81-63. Jim Boeheim’s Orange (14-6, 3-4 Atlantic Coast) shot a whopping 60.4 percent from the field and scored a season-high 47 points in the first half, rendering the Eagles’ (13-8, 3-5) 47.8-percent mark from 3-point land moot, denying them their first ACC road victory of the season.
1) Attacking the Zone From the Free Throw Line
In the game’s opening minutes, BC had great success carving up Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone by entering the ball to the foul line area and then spacing its shooters in a way that stretched the defense, leaving one man open. After a dunk in transition by Jerome Robinson gave the Eagles their first points, their next three baskets all came on triples generated by getting the ball to the middle of the zone. The common denominator in all three plays was Nik Popovic serving as the triggerman, using his underrated passing skills to spray the ball to his shooters, creating clean looks for his guards.
Here, after Popovic gets the ball from Bowman, he catches Syracuse’s Tyus Battle napping at the top of the zone. By merely looking at Robinson on the far wing, he gets Battle to drift sideways, completely forgetting about the fact that Jordan Chatman is standing right behind him. The junior marksman has plenty of time to shoot and knocks down the easy 3-pointer.
On the next play, after Popovic sets up shop at the foul line, Oshae Brissett seemingly forgets about Robinson on the wing, flashing down low to double the Bosnian sophomore. As Battle flies over to cover Robinson, Popovic kicks it out to Chatman, who makes the extra pass past a scrambling Howard to Ky Bowman for another open shot from deep, forcing Boeheim to call a timeout.
This time, Robinson follows up his entry pass to Popovic by cutting down the lane. With Pascal Chukwu—Syracuse’s 7-foot-2 center—occupied by Popovic, Brissett must bump down to meet the cutter, leaving Chatman free on the far wing for another easy triple.
2) Robinson Cutting to Score
Robinson finished the game with a team-high 21 points, on a highly efficient 9-for-14 shooting performance. Despite his season long hot streak from downtown, the junior guard only took two 3-point shots in 40 minutes of playing time, instead preferring to attack the Orange zone from mid-range. He hit a couple of shots after catching the ball and taking a few dribbles at the free throw line, but perhaps more impressively, he also scored several baskets in the paint by reading weak spots in the zone and slicing through them to the rim.
Here, as Bowman and Steffon Mitchell run a pick and roll outside the 3-point line, occupying the two players at the top of the zone, Chatman moves up to the wing. Brissett switches from his bottom position to guard him, well aware of the shooting threat Chatman poses. Seeing this, Robinson immediately cuts backdoor into the vacated space. With his path to the rim unimpeded, thanks to Popovic grabbing Chukwu, the junior smoothly flushes an alley oop from his backcourt mate, momentarily quieting the crowd.
In the second half, Robinson got four layups at the rim, largely as a function of off ball cuts like the one in the clip above. As Meznieks dribbles baseline, catching the eyes of three Orange defenders, Robinson sprints from the far wing, putting himself in great position to receive a pass. Catching the ball below the foul line, he then uses pump fakes to slip past two Syracuse defenders before softly laying in the ball.
When a good zone defense is set in the halfcourt, it becomes very hard for guards to get directly from the arc to the rim off the dribble. But with some canny off ball movement, looks at the rim suddenly present themselves, as Robinson showed Wednesday night.
3) Turning Offensive Rebounds into Perimeter Shots
One of the best ways to generate 3-pointers in basketball is during the scramble that ensues after an offensive rebound. This is especially true against a zone defense, where defenders don’t have individual box-out responsibilities, leaving an opponent plenty of chances to clean up on the offensive glass. Though BC only had five offensive boards against Syracuse, it made the most of its opportunities, highlighted by a stretch in which the Eagles used offensive rebounds to set up two 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half.
Both times, Jordan Chatman was the play’s final beneficiary, hitting his third and fourth triples of the half. The second sequence serves as a particularly fine example of how ball movement eventually picks apart a defense scrambling to reset after allowing an opponent a second-chance possession.
1) Defending Penetration
There’s no hiding the fact that BC’s defense was suspect across the board, from start to finish. You don’t allow an opponent to shoot over 60 percent from the floor without a team-wide breakdown. Battle and Howard hurt the Eagles all night long, combining to score 42 points on 15-of-28 shooting from the field, with five 3-pointers. The duo certainly hit their fair share of tough isolation jumpers off the dribble—shots that BC defenders might’ve been able to contest better, but otherwise couldn’t do much about.
But they also managed to slice into the paint numerous times with minimal resistance, getting clean looks at the rim.
In the first play, Howard uses a hesitation dribble to slip past Chatman, then skips by Luka Kraljevic and explodes to the rack, laying the ball in, all while working around a Popovic block attempt. In the second play, Howard again uses a lefty hesitation dribble, this time slipping by Bowman near the half court line, with more than 20 feet of open hardwood in front of him. He zooms past Popovic, finishing softly at the hoop.
It’s certainly not fair to blame Popovic for not blocking these shots. The sophomore has strengths, but being an athletic rim protector is not among them. Rather, these clips illustrate just how crucial airtight perimeter defense on athletic guards is to BC’s team defense, given its deficiencies at guarding the basket. In a league teeming with some of the most explosive guards in the nation, the Eagles must improve in this department if they are to have any chance of winning future ACC games.
After initially finding success in dissecting the Orange’s 2-3 zone, utilizing guard cuts and entering the ball at the foul line, BC’s offense began to stagnate halfway through the first half. The team had a couple of shot clock violations, in which it failed to crack the zone for over 30 seconds, and finished the game with 17 turnovers, frequently attempting to make ill-advised passes across the court.
Additionally, numerous giveaways stemmed from low entry passes thrown by a player at the free throw line to a big man lurking along the baseline.
Popovic, Kraljevic and Johncarlos Reyes all lost the ball when trying to collect passes down by their knees. In one case, Robinson hit Reyes in the shins with a bounce pass. The end result was unsurprising: the big man was unable to get his hands to the floor quick enough to corral it.
Bowman also finished the game with five turnovers to four assists, marking the third-straight game in which he has totaled more turnovers than assists. Over those three contests, the sophomore floor general has recorded just 11 assists to 18 turnovers. While Bowman’s creative burden on offense will invariably lead to some forced passes and poor decisions, he must cut down this extremely high turnover rate for the Eagles to function effectively on offense, especially on the road.
After Bowman inadvertently whacked Mitchell in the side of the head with an elbow midway through the first half, the freshman from Shakopee, Minnesota entered the concussion protocol at halftime, missing the rest of the game. Mitchell played just 18 minutes Wednesday, less than half of his 36.4 minutes per game average in ACC play entering the night. As a result, BC was forced to test its frontcourt depth, playing Popovic and Kraljevic together and experimenting with a Kraljevic-Reyes frontcourt pairing at times. Head coach Jim Christian even dusted off Meznieks for a brief three minute cameo in the second half.
Excluding Popovic, those other three players combined to score just one point across 27 minutes. They posed minimal threats on offense, without the ability to either be an accurate shooter or quickly gather the ball in the paint and go up for a dunk or layup. As a result, Syracuse’s zone was rarely stressed below the foul line, with all of its attention focused on the Eagles’ perimeter shooters.
Since it would be naïve to assume that any of the players outside BC’s starting five—with the possible exception of Kraljevic—could establish themselves as a potent scorer by the end of the season, Wednesday’s lineup chaos only serves to prove just how paper thin Christian’s rotation is. Mitchell missing any time with a potential head injury would spell disaster for BC.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor