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Five Quick Takes: Syracuse 81 BC 63

Eagles defenseless in Dome

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Five quick takes following BC’s 81-63 loss to Syracuse before an announced crowd of 21,262 at the Carrier Dome. FYI, looking at it on TV and having been there for our games in the ‘80s drawing over 30K (with fans sitting in the upper deck at the opposite 30 yard line), there didn’t look like there was much over 10-12,000 there;

But I digress.

Consecutive conference losses drop the Eagles to 13-8 overall and 3-5 in the ACC, marking the first time all season that BC is two games below break even in the league.

Boston College has a full week off now prior to resuming ACC play against Virginia Tech. on January 31 at Conte Forum.

Eagles not hard to play against

Tom Crean brought it up at the half, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see it, the Eagles simply didn’t bring the required defensive intensity to the Dome on Wednesday night.

Syracuse shot a blazing .604 from the floor (29-48), their high water mark for the season and only the third time all year they were at or above 50% (Colgate - .521 and Buffalo - .500).

For the Eagles, it marked the third time they have allowed teams at or above 50% and not coincidentally, were drubbed in the other two. At Providence, losing by 20 and giving up 59% and at UNC, losing by 30 and giving up exactly 50%.

We have a tendency to evaluate BC critically and never assess, either good or bad, what the opposition does. So give Syracuse their due. They showed balance, making 5-9 from beyond the arc in the first half combining that with the inside play of their only three bigs and physically superior guards who torched Jordan Chatman and Vin Baker in particular, getting to the basket.

But BC simply wasn’t hard to play against. We’ve talked often here about how effort doesn’t produce linear results and although it’s really impossible to put a finite number on it, anyone who watched the game saw BC defenders perhaps in the area code, but not in the jock strap of, the men they were covering on the perimeter and getting overwhelmed in the post as well.

Not that Syracuse needed help, but BC also gave up 14 second chance points on 8 SU offensive rebounds, a convert rate of essentially 7 out of 8 and also got 17 points off 17 Eagle turnovers.

Turnovers against the Orange zone which are immediately turned into points has been a common bugaboo for teams including BC through the years, but most of them the other night provided just another possession which the ‘Cuse efficiently cashed in, as opposed to the guard run out layups we have seen in the past.

Much was made of BC losing Steffon Mitchell and while that certainly didn’t help matters, most of this centered around the guards being unable to control their men. Syracuse plays a lot like a 90s NBA team, with a lot of isolation and attacking matchups as opposed to equal opportunity sets and the game came down to a series of 1 on 1 battles, virtually all won by the home team.

Jim Christian called his team out on this in the post game press conference, so it’s not like he was oblivious to it and perhaps it had something to do with what amounted to back to back road games, but the least you can ask of yourself on a night over night basis is effort and BC didn’t have nearly enough of that to win in upstate New York.

Now that said....

Syracuse tires you out when you have the ball

Very few teams press any more, at least not for long stretches of the game. The days of Tom Davis and Gary Williams at BC going “55” (1-2-1-1) for 40 minutes are relegated to YouTube videos, but it doesn’t mean that teams can’t get fatigued, at least mentally, playing offense.

Virginia and Syracuse are two examples of teams who although they approach it differently, tire teams out as much or more mentally because of the way they defend.

While prepping for most games, your time is spent defensively, taking away the opposing teams key players and offensive sets, when you play a Syracuse, you spend a majority of your time on how you attack them. In this case, attacking a 2-3 zone, the likes of which you don’t play against often, if at all, and simply can’t simulate in practice.

BC started strongly, making four threes in the opening 3:54 of the game, but then changed their attack (we will get into that in the next section), Syracuse adjusted a bit and the stress began.

The Eagles did well in transition (another of our future points), but spent too much time pulling the ball out of the net after an SU basket as opposed to creating steals or chances off missed shots to garner many break opportunities. This forced them into playing the vast majority of the game against a set Orange zone and although by Syracuse standards, BC did well in dissecting it (only Kansas shot a higher percentage from the floor all year than the Eagles did), they only took 44 shots for the game.

Those 44 FGAs are 8 fewer than the second lowest number all season, guessed it, Virginia.

Teams that want to get up and down the floor get tighter when they don’t get up shots. BC isn’t an ultra high volume shot team, but they do average 15 more attempts per game than they got Wednesday night.

The more shots, the easier those shots come, the looser teams play. When the shot clock is seemingly always under 5 seconds and you haven’t made any headway in creating a chance, that takes a toll.

BC’s defense suffered, at least somewhat, because of that mental strain and because of the amount of preparation required to attack the zone as opposed to defending.

Which bring us to...

How were the Eagles attacking the zone early and why did they change?

In the past, we’ve covered the various key points to attacking a zone. Beating it down the floor, perimeter shooting, getting in the gaps, screening it, getting the ball to the short corner, etc. But a fundamental rule is not to get matched up. In other words the 2-3 zone is an even man front (2 guards), go with an odd man front against it. This creates natural gaps and communication issues for the zone.

The last few years, BC has run a rotation offense against the zone which primarily flashes weak side wing players into the free throw line area (what LaPhonso Ellis kept referring to as the ACC area).

On Wednesday night, they originally started out in a far simpler approach. A basic 1-3-1 set with Nik Popovic at the free throw line and Steffon Mitchell going what we would call short corner (low and a step or two off the block) to short corner.

It’s elementary, but effective, particularly if you can find the right player to play that middle spot, which is the absolute key to that success.

For some reason, after the hot start, BC went back to the old rotation set and troubles set in offensively. Why?

That middle area is tough to play. It’s fine to rotate players into the area, but if they can’t do anything with the ball once they get there, they are useless. Popovic generally did well, but there is no sense flashing Luke Kraljevic or Jordan Chatman in there, they can’t operate in there. That is an area you need to have size, shooting, ball handling and decision making, and only two of the Eagles fit that mold. Jerome Robinson and Popovic, with Robinson clearly the better of the two.

I do realize this takes Robinson off the wing, but your choices are limited and when he got into that spot, he was successful, particularly in the second half, shooting 4-7 with 5 of those 7 shots at the rim and one at the free throw line.

If you spend all your time flashing guys to that spot who can’t do anything with the ball once they get there, you are just wasting time on the shot clock and ultimately winding up with more of the mental fatigue discussed above.

BC had a clear focus on creating transition opportunities...but

One of the most obvious points of emphasis to the game plan was beating the zone down the floor. Analysts have said that BC likes to push the ball and while I think that is generally accurate, they aren’t playing at 1990 Loyola Marymount speed and aren’t doing it consistently. Wednesday night they tried.

On any opportunity given them, BC (generally Ky Bowman) pressured that retreating defense at breakneck speed and the Eagles were beneficiaries of a few easier baskets and great three point looks.

Beating a zone down the floor is one of the guiding principles around attacking it and with a pure zone team like Syracuse, is a plan you can stick with throughout the course of the game.

BC didn’t make all those shots, but the plan was solid.

Where it fell apart was the number of chances they got to execute on the strategy. BC spent most of the game starting their offense by inbounding underneath their defensive basket after Syracuse makes. Teams like the Paul Westhead LMU versions or even modern day North Carolina are run after make teams, but few today are and BC doesn’t have the depth to play at that pace all game either.

Once again, this is where the Eagle defense let them down.

Force open court turnovers, long rebounds off missed shots or just get a stop and that strategy and the easy basket chances it could have brought, become a lot more viable.

Did BC’s depth have anything to do with the outcome?

Well, it doesn’t help, but no.

Much was made of both teams being in the bottom three in the country in terms of bench minutes and both lost starters (Mitchell for BC and Moyer for Syracuse) early in the game, but the fact is that how both teams play impacts the depth issue more than the ultimate outcome.

BC plays 70-80% man defense, runs a lot more in transition as a five man group and has a lot more five man motion to their offense. Syracuse on other hand (and this is not in any sense saying they are lazy), but the relative amount of movement and wear and tear playing a zone, less five man motion to what they do offensively, just doesn’t take the same toll.

One quick example would be defending ball screens. Most teams including the Eagles run high ball screens possession after possession after possession. That takes a toll when a 6’1 guard runs into a 6’8 wide bodied post player play after play, the zone keeps you out of most of that.

So it is harder on the body in general to play like BC plays as opposed to Syracuse.

Syracuse has played the 2-3 for decades now and has almost never gone beyond 7 men deep and yet has been a perennial winner, so Jim Boeheim is comfortable with the system and the style and an apparent lack of depth.

BC though lost this game on the defensive end, not due to lack of depth, but lack of energy. They didn’t have it from the moment they walked onto the floor. If Jim Christian had options on the bench like the old Dean Smith Carolina blue team, where if he got ticked off, he’d sub everyone out and let them know he wasn’t happy, before putting them back in, he would have..but he’s stuck. If you want to attribute lack of depth to taking that route, then I suppose it’s fine, but BC didn’t wear down, they were just never engaged enough to begin with.