Column: Breaking down BC basketball’s defensive issues

(Photo by Graham Beck/Heights Editor)

By Austin Tedesco, Asst. Sports Editor

FIU’s style of play and Baylor’s high-skill level could’ve misconstrued where this Boston College basketball team is defensively, but, after falling 87-71 to Dayton on Friday afternoon, it’s pretty clear now. This squad just can’t guard consistently. It’s not that the players are bad defenders, because they aren’t, and it’s not that head coach Steve Donahue has a bad defensive scheme, because he doesn’t. On the court, it looks like a team that has made a really impressive leap offensively while still just not getting it on the defensive end of the court. Most of the players have the potential to be good defenders and Donahue is using typical man principles, but the execution just isn’t there and it will need to be fixed if BC is going to stop losing games it shouldn’t. Here’s a breakdown of what is happening in each aspect of the defense.

Pick-and-Roll:

This is easily the weakest aspect of BC’s defensive game, and all three opponents have attacked it well. The issues begin with the big men defending the screeners. Ryan Anderson and Dennis Clifford have not consistently been in the right position. The pick-and-roll defense is at its best when Clifford and Anderson step out with their hands up as the ball-handler uses the screen, and then immediately sprint back to their man without losing track of the ball. This has only happened on some occasions. Most of the time, the big man won’t show long enough or won’t show at all, and it leads to a wide open three or a drive to the rim. Andrew Van Nest has done an incredible job at this position, and it’s the reason he’s seeing more playing time.

Another issue in the pick-and-roll is the on-ball guard. Too often, the guard, whether it is Olivier Hanlan, Joe Rahon, or Lonnie Jackson, waits too long to start fighting over the screen. This puts the bigs, especially Clifford who lacks serious lateral quickness, in an awkward position because it means they have to defend a smaller guard for a longer period of time. Hanlan has been the defender in most pick-and-rolls so far since BC’s opponents have been running the play through the point guard. Hanlan has done a good job at times of picking a spot and forcing his way there as he fights over the pick. If the screener tries to keep him from getting there, it should be a foul, as most of these picks are being set while the screener is on the move. If Hanlan can eliminate possessions in which he does his work late and gets stuck chasing his man around the screen rather than cutting him off as he fights over it, then most of the pick-and-roll issues will start to go away. It’s a really difficult thing to do on every possession, but it’s the only way the defense is going to get cleaned up.

Defending the Post:

Post entry has also been a serious problem for the Eagles. For starters, the guards make it way too easy for the pass to get to the opponent’s big men. When BC defends the ball on the perimeter, there hasn’t been a lot of pressure and that has allowed for easy and composed passes to the block. The bigger issue, though, is where and how the BC bigs are defending the man posting up. Both Anderson and Clifford too often find themselves entirely on the back of the man they are defending. Other teams have done a good job of running their post players through some motion before settling on the block, but Anderson and Clifford have to be ready for this. They need to see the post up coming and get themselves in a three-quarter front. Both bigs do this when the post up is obviously coming, but, again, they lack consistency. The three-quarter front, making the entry pass possible only if it is low and near the baseline, takes away so many options for the opposing player in the post and it also makes the guard less comfortable throwing the pass inside. Clifford and Anderson are also not pushing their men off the block enough. This is a tough thing for two young, developing players to do on every possession, but if they keep allowing post players to catch the ball right on the block without pressure, then opponents will keep shooting at a high percentage.

Rotation from the Guards:

Hanlan and Jackson are the biggest culprits here, as Rahon is fundamentally sound on defense and doesn’t struggle with this as much. Both Hanlan and Jackson find themselves watching the ball way too often. They aren’t necessarily losing their men, but they don’t keep themselves in a position to easily help or easily recover. They are choosing one or the other. This leads to both players getting turned around and having to turn all the way back around as they close out to the perimeter. Easy three-point looks for the other team will decrease significantly once Hanlan and Jackson figure out the right position and stay there through each possession.

Transition:

Two issues stand out here. First, the ball is being stopped way too late. Rahon and Hanlan are both very quick and very talented at on-ball defense. They should feel comfortable picking up the dribbler around half court and they should make it their job to do this every time. Instead, the point guard or lead guard in transition is getting near the NBA three-point line before he is slowed down and this is causing too many fast breaks. The other issue is that too many players are finding their man in transition and sticking to him. This just can’t happen. With one or two players still running back on defense, whatever players are already below the three-point line need to favor the other team’s best shooter and buy time in whatever way they can as the other players get back. Transition is a team endeavor, it’s not the individual matching up that is happening too often right now.

Bob Picozzi, who called the game for ESPN with Jay Williams, accused BC of lacking fight and not wanting it as much as Dayton on Friday. That’s not what I saw at all. A team doesn’t take this many charges without fighting hard. There was probably an emotional letdown from the Baylor game and, with a short rotation, the back-to-back games couldn’t have been easy on the body. All four of these fixes on defense take a whole lot of effort on the court, and if the Eagles can fix all of them it wouldn’t just make a good defensive team, it would make them elite. That won’t happen in the next week or even month, but over the course of the season all of these concepts need to improve. The offense is finally getting there. It’s time for the defense to catch up.

First Downs Will Be Key For Offense At Wake Forest

By Austin Tedesco, Asst. Sports Editor

After putting up over 30 points in four out of its first five games, the Boston College offense has struggled to get into the end zone the last three times out, including Saturday’s win over Maryland. The Eagles’ offense thrived early in the season by striking fast, getting the defense on its toes, and then forcing the ball down the field at will.

“We’ve seen throughout the season that not a lot of people can stop our no-huddle,” said senior offensive lineman Emmett Cleary. “We have a certain amount of confidence that once we get that first first-down we really get rolling and it’s difficult for people [to stop us].”

Cleary couldn’t be more right. The BC offense has played very well once it builds momentum off that initial first down, especially when the very first play of the drive is successful.

Of the 19 touchdown drives for the Eagles (drives that only included one play or began inside the opponent’s 10 were excluded from this statistic), 14 of them began with an initial first-down play of five yards or more. It is further proof that once the Eagles have gotten rolling, they’ve been tough to stop.

Additionally, out of BC’s 28 scoring drives (which includes both touchdowns and field goals) 18 of them have come off of initial first-down plays of five yards or more. In fact, BC is averaging right around 14 yards per initial first-down play on its scoring drives.

The problem in the last three games has been getting that important first-down play. Out of 35 opportunities against Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Maryland, the Eagles picked up five yards or more on 14 of those initial first-down plays. Ten of those 14 plays for five yards or more led to scoring drives. BC will need to execute solid gains on first down at a much more efficient clip if the offense is going to bring back the success it had early in the year.

“For whatever reason in the [Maryland] game, first downs weren’t very good for us,” said quarterback Chase Rettig. “If we can fix our first downs, we’ll be able to put ourselves in much better situations.”

Not only will the first-down plays get BC in an early groove, but they will also help prevent the dangerously long third downs the Eagles have constantly faced.

“The hard thing is, you’re in third-and-10 and the offensive coordinator is put into a situation where he has to call a pass play – and our conversions in the two-minute drill were good, but obviously the defense knows you’ll be passing the ball in that situation,” Rettig said. “We’ve got to do a better job of controlling our down and distance.”

Rettig noted that an improved running game would make life a lot easier on first-down.

“I read some stat that our average third down before the two-minute drive was like 10 or 11 yards out,” Rettig said. “We can definitely make it easier on ourselves. If we’re going to run the ball on first down it needs to be for three or four yards, and then a play-action or anything just to get a couple yards to make it easier on yourself when its second-and-long or third-and-long.”

When the Eagles run on an initial first-down this season, they’ve averaged 3.77 yards per rush, which isn’t bad, but that stat is misleading due to some very long runs mixed in with plenty of runs for no gain. They’ve been much better through the air, but now teams are expecting it. The play-action calls are going to be less successful and the gaps that tight end Chris Pantale and wide receiver Alex Amidon have been finding in the middle of the field will start to close.

It will be on running back Andre Williams and the offensive line to keep the defense honest and keep those gaps open with solid gains on first-down. Williams said at this point it’s just going to take execution and discipline.

“We just have to be disciplined and be able to be precise and execute,” Williams said. “We see in every game it’s always the precision and execution that hurts us. If we’re not precise and we can’t execute then we hurt ourselves, but if we can put it together, then like coach Martin says we can score 30 or 40 points.”

That execution and discipline will be most important on BC’s very first play of each possession. If the Eagles can find success there, then that 30 or 40-point performance won’t seem so out of reach.

Three Thoughts From BC-Harvard

By Paul Sulzer

I never thought I’d graduate BC 0-4 against Harvard in basketball. Yet here we are after tonight’s 67-46 loss in Conte Forum. The Eagles played well in short stretches, especially over the first five minutes, but they failed to counter the Crimson’s adjustments. After BC opened on a 12-3 run, Harvard controlled the rest of the game. Here’s how it happened:

  • Match-up issues: When Harvard went small following BC’s run to open the game, the Eagles bent to the Crimson’s will instead of exploiting a significant size advantage inside. BC played Patrick Heckmann (13 points, five rebounds, six assists) as a fourth guard, and the freshman from Germany drove to the hoop almost at will. But BC wound up giving John Cahill 14 minutes on the wing, getting minimal productivity (one point and one assist). Those minutes could have been better spent on 6-foot-8 power forward Ryan Anderson, who played just 16 minutes (his second-lowest total of the year). His absence hurt BC on the boards, where Harvard held a 36-22 edge despite playing a consistently smaller group.

  • Faulty rotations: In my opinion, Steve Donahue isn’t getting the right players on the court at the right time. You can make a pretty compelling case that BC’s five best players are Jordan Daniels, Lonnie Jackson, Heckmann, Anderson, and Dennis Clifford. Yet that group never saw the court together. It’s important to spread out the scoring a bit between the first and second unit. But the five best players should be playing during the most critical stretches of the game. In the first 15 minutes of the second half, when the game was still within reach, Anderson and Clifford played together for just three minutes. Meanwhile, Matt Humphrey (five points, 2-of-10 shooting, 1-of-5 from 3) played 31 mistake-filled minutes. He’s a ball-stopper – someone who inhibits ball movement by holding it for too long. Give his minutes to a more efficient passer, like Daniels or Gabe Moton.

  • Failure to break down the Harvard defense: The Crimson are up there with St. Louis among the best defensive teams the Eagles have faced this year, so BC’s shooting struggles (27 percent from three) and turnover issues (17 giveaways) are understandable. That doesn’t make those shortcomings acceptable, though. BC bricked plenty of open looks and committed plenty of unforced errors. Running isolation plays for Jackson (zero 3-pointers attempted) could have helped him shake free from Oliver McNally. Finding Anderson in the post instead of on the wing would have played to his height advantage.

Our defensive line coach rewound the same play over and over in film study this week. He said, “Don’t think that arm tackles are going to get it done this week.” One guy [on Wake Forest] had him wrapped up and tried to throw him to the ground, and he broke free and ran for 30 more yards. Max Holloway, BC defensive end, on Virginia Tech running back David Wilson