In our pre-season picks, I had the Eagles grabbing two ACC wins. Early on, that certainly looked like a miss and maybe by a good margin, but my reason for the low win total started at the defensive end of the floor. That and a lack of ACC level depth, seemed to indicate that although the season overall might be an improvement, there was still a long way to go before BC made its way significantly up the ACC ladder.
As we head into mid February and ultimately into tournament season, my prognostication looks pretty accurate. There are a few winnable games left on the docket and one can certainly make the case that the Eagles have played better overall than expected, but there is also the possibility that BC goes Oh for on the way out the door of the 2016-17 campaign.
What are BC’s problems defensively, how is it manifesting itself and what, if anything, can the Eagles do at this late stage in the season to fix it?
What are the issues?
Personnel - The Eagles are pretty thin at this point with ACC level talent and ACC level athletes. BC lacks the long athletic bodies who play with a passion at the defensive end of the court. Finding those athletes who want to defend can be challenging enough. Many have been coddled as offensive stars throughout their formative years and the transformation to be made to play both ends of the floor can be tough. That is not to say in any way that BC has prima donnas on the court, far from it, but the Eagles lack that level of athletic talent and too often the competitiveness it takes to dictate defensively.
What is the focus of the team - It is pretty clear that Jim Christian has decided to try to outscore people rather than to focus on being a defense first team. Now this is not to say that they ignore the defensive side of things, but I did find the decision to start Jordan Chatman and bring AJ Turner in off the bench very interesting. Neither Chatman or Turner are what I consider great competitors, but Christian often put Turner in the role of that lock down defender and now has decided to go with the perimeter shooting of Chatman over that more versatile defender in Turner. This makes it all the more challenging for a team who is struggling at that end to succeed.
If you look at either current or historically solid programs, you can point to what they are known for and do consistently well over long periods. Indiana under Bob Knight was tough man defense, Syracuse has long been known for the 2-3 zone, Duke and their pressure man to man, Michigan State under Tom Izzo for power and rebounding, Virginia for the pack line.
BC doesn’t appear to have that identity on the defensive end at this time, but it is difficult to know what the long term goal is based on the way they play now.
If you want a very recent example, just look at Pittsburgh. Ben Howland and then Jamie Dixon focused on being an uber physical defensive team. In just 1 season with Kevin Stallings, that is completely gone.
You get what you focus on.
The inability to defend the paint - There is most definitely more than one way to skin a cat, but because BC is not a heavy ball pressure team up the floor, the game gets played a lot in the 1/4 court and we’ve seen how difficult it is for players in Nik Popovic, Mo Jeffers and Connar Tava, who are really power or small forwards, forced into defending the post to do so. Jeffers can block the occasional shot, but teams have no fears either directly entering the ball to the post or driving the ball from the perimeter. It doesn’t help at all that the perimeter defenders aren’t strong at either individually preventing dribble penetration or team help concepts to keep the ball out of the post and as I’ve touched on ad naseum, allowing a post player to catch the ball in the post, particularly one like John Collins at Wake or last night with Michael Young (I actually said to myself that when Artis went down, Young would get 30), when you can’t defend 1 on 1 is asking for trouble and it’s trouble BC usually sees. If you can’t cover it, don’t let it in..front the post.
Back to the cat, there are as we reviewed in the section above, a lot of ways to win, but if you can’t defend the paint, you can’t keep the ball out of the lane and you don’t pressure it well either in the full court or the half court to force turnovers, it makes the task tough.
What can the Eagles defend - Rick Pitino (and many coaches have followed suit) has always believed there are really only two shots in basketball: the layup and the three pointer. The mid range shots because of their relative value based on what your shooting percentage is taking them, have devalued through the years. BC doesn’t do really good job defending either one.
Staying “connected” - A buzz phrase of the new millennium, the idea being that much like an offense working in concert, the defense needs to work as a connected, five man unit to stop the basketball. Generally, that means that you can see a team move on every pass and communicating verbally. The concept of “jumping to the ball” as we called it, kept the entire defense engaged, but it also adjusted the players on the floor, putting them in better position to defend. The Eagles on the other hand, well watch the tape. It is a rarity that BC stays connected through an entire possession, instead you see a lot of ball watching, players not in defensive stances and not playing with a five man purpose.
The mental - Don’t kid yourself, your mentality changes when you know you are playing against a good defense. It is not something you want to harp on with your players, but for instance when the Eagles played Virginia, there was a higher value placed on each shot partly because the Cavaliers defend well and partly because it’s in your head that they defend well.
How has this manifested itself?
Scoring defense - This is probably the least important of the statistical analysis because so much of how much you give up is directly related to your tempo and BC does play at pace (back to the concept of this being an offensive team), but the Eagles are 2nd to last in the ACC in scoring defense, just a bit ahead of Pitt. The Eagles haven’t had quite the ups and really downs the Panthers have experienced, but BC also ranks second to last in the ACC (to Pitt) and third to last (only Pitt and Oregon State) in defensive efficiency, among Power 5 programs.
Field goal percentage defense - Here we see the perils of not being able to defend the paint, where despite doing a better than good job (one should say excellent in general, never mind based on the personnel they have on the floor) rebounding where they #9 in the country in defensive rebound rate, BC is #276 in the country at 52% in what they allow for two point field goals. That’s a big yikes!
These then are direct post entries, dribble drives, offensive rebounds and of course transition baskets, where we know the Eagle offense doesn’t help matters with their live ball turnovers. Most of these are not those mid range shots we discussed earlier, these are shots at the rim.
Only Oklahoma State at 52.2%, #283 in the country is worse.
The Eagles also don’t benefit from forcing a lot of turnovers, ranking #229 in opponent turnovers per possession while giving it up on 18.3% of their own offensive possessions, to sit at a horrid #308.
The depth of this team shows here as well. Lack of depth tends to lead to fatigue and when that lack of depth is in the post, that leads to real problems. The Eagles have allowed 8 of their last 9 opponents to shoot a higher FG % in the second half than in the first and in 6 straight games, the opposition has shot greater than 50% in the second half.
- Pittsburgh - 1st 39%, 2nd 68% = -29%
- Louisville - 1st 52%, 2nd 63% = -11%
- Wake Forest- 1st 43%, 2nd 50% = -7%
- Virginia Tech - 1st 63%, 2nd 55% = +8%
- Miami - 1st 48%, 2nd 52% = -4%
- North Carolina - 1st 39%, 2nd 55% = -16%
- Virginia - 1st 57%, 2nd 46% = +9%
- Syracuse - 1st 40%, 2nd 54% = -14%
- NC State - 1st 41%, 2nd 48% = -7%
Fouling - The Eagles foul about in the middle of pack nationally, but the manifestation of those fouls is pronounced. BC fouls on 23.2% of their possessions, #147 in the country, but gives up 22.5% of their points from the stripe which puts them #295 in this category.
This can only mean that the Eagles foul more on shots rather than non shooting fouls and generally later in games where they are behind which drive up those totals.
What can be done to fix it?
Determine if you want to fix it - BC has now lost eight games in a row and ten of the last eleven. They’ve lost three straight since the switch from AJ Turner to Jordan Chatman (arguably the more offensive lineup) and have given up an average of 86 points per night while seeing their defensive efficiency take about a 20% hit since that change. It doesn’t mean going back to Turner solves the problem, but the philosophical view around whether you build from the defensive end or the offensive one will be interesting to see.
Front the post - So I’ve only said this for the past umpteen years, but if you can’t cover the post one on one, don’t let it in there. Keeping the ball out of the post though, much like kicking a field goal in football, is at least a three person operation. Pressure the ball on the perimeter to not make the post entry easy, front the post to not allow the ball in while not getting walked up the lane or off the block to open up space to lob over the top. Provide weak side help for the post who is fronting.
Drive competitiveness - We are definitely getting to the point in the year where practices are getting shorter and coaches are trying to save players legs, but this team lacks a consistent competitive focus on the defensive end. We’ve talked in the past about how effort to results is not linear but exponential and although I would definitely not call BC lazy defensively, they need to put our more and put out more consistently. It would be unfair as I don’t know for sure, to understand how competitive practices are in general or at this time in the year, but there does need to be a better competitive spirit in games and one of the key ways to drive that is being that way in practice.
Stop turning the ball over - Oh, this is a column on defense..well sure, but live ball turnovers converted into clean shot opportunities and layups take the heart out of your defense. Even reducing this total 2-3 per game would make a world of difference in games you are losing by small margins.
Get more talent - Duh you say. Of course. I may have told the story of a clinic years ago where Bob Huggins, then at Cincinnati and now at West Virginia was talking about his defense and very matter of factly told a high school coach that if he didn’t have a 6’8 player he could put on the court to play the back of his press, he just needed to find one.
Truth of the matter is, at this point, all Jim Christian can do is to try to establish a culture where defense is important through competitive situations and then go find players more conducive to defending at an ACC level.