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Toppin Off: Boston College Should Have Fired Jim Christian

I wrote this before the news dropped yesterday, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote this last week, before yesterday’s news dropped that Martin Jarmond has decided to retain Jim Christian for another year. I cannot help but disagree with him. After seven years, Boston College needed to fire Jim Christian. They needed to do it swiftly. I do not say that lightly. I have long been a defender of having patience with coaches as well as of Christian. I have stood by him well past the point that most of you had given up. That started to change during this season, and now the case against him professionally is too great. All of the arguments for his retention have left, and I find myself left only able to identify his shortcomings as Boston College’s coach.

Identity and Gameplan

Surely many of you on twitter have seen this clip of Al Skinner’s BC teams running the flex during your quarantined/shelter-in-place twitter scrolling.

That’s a team with an identity, one that lends itself to nicknaming Jared Dudley “the Junkyard Dog.” The current iteration team doesn’t feel like it has an identity, and that ultimately comes down to the coach:

This team has trotted out the same ineffective game plan week in and week out.

Some of you might now say: “Hey, that’s a double standard. You can’t be upset for Jim Christian trying to instill a certain identity in this team while also being mad that he’s been sticking with an identity!”

That’s fair, but it’s an understanding that undervalues the flexibility that a good identity provides. Contrast the identities of the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. To most fans, both teams have an identity as three-point shooting teams. But in reality, it’s both teams’ identities that manifest in taking those threes.

The Rockets have a pretty inflexible identity: they isolate their best scorers against the weakest opposing matchup and attempt to score by pulling up or driving. The only shots Head Coach Mike D’Antoni allows are from the three point line and at the basket, and their team GM Daryl Morey has constructed the team as such. When it works, it works great. But when it doesn’t? You end up missing 27 straight threes in a win or go home game, unable to adjust.

That’s such a beautiful video.

The Warriors have built their identity upon their passing, clearly inspired by Steve Kerr’s time under Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. They rely on giving up good shots for great shots, which just happens to be a lot of threes when you have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But when either of them saw David West open at the elbow, they deferred to the open man. When a player like Kevin Durant joined that team, they didn’t need to change that identity. They just needed to instill that pass-first mentality into him.

Hell, think of what led Oregon football to dominance in the 2000’s: speed and a spread offense. Every player on the field was not necessarily more skilled, more athletic, or stronger (though it would eventually become all that); they were just faster. The game plan would adjust within the parameters set by this speed-first identity. Some years it looked like an air-raid team and others clearly emphasized power running. Speed is an identity that can manifest itself in different ways. (I think Steve Addazio was always close to the counterweight of Oregon, but could never quite get his old fashioned, hard nosed identity instilled in all of the skill possession groups simultaneously. But that’s a column for another day).

What identity do these Eagles teams have? They aren’t faster than their opponents. They’re not better defenders, nor do they play as a more cohesive unit. They’re not “Junkyard Dogs” or anything else. They just run a lot of four and five-out sets that result in contested threes. That’s on Christian, who hasn’t been able to do it after seven years.

In-Game Coaching

I’ll admit the defense was better this year - last year, when writing previews, my typical way of identifying “[Opposing Team] Player to Watch” was just to pick the guy with the highest 3pt%. That was not the case this year.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the inability of Jim Christian’s teams to close out games. Part of this is on the high variance that comes with being a three-point shooting team. But when the opponent has the ball with the shot clock off, down one possession, it seems like it always goes in. (see: 2015-16 NC State, 2017-18 Miami, 2018-19 Providence and Notre Dame, Pitt and Notre Dame this year). Christian never fouls, even when it has bitten him in the ass more than once.

I can also say that I’ve never seen a team so unable to adapt to a full court press. Since 2015 (at least) this team has been helpless whenever they have to deal with pressure on their side of the court, resulting in turnover after turnover. Seriously. This team averages nearly 13 turnovers per game in games decided by 6 points or less under Jim Christian. There’s no reason to think that this will change.

Roster Development

Jim Christian can recruit and develop guards. I think we can all admit that. He sent Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman to the NBA; Wynston Tabbs, Jordan Chatman, Jay Heath, and Jared Hamilton have all improved while at BC. Truthfully, only Eli Carter and Derryck Thornton stand out as the exceptions, and I think that reflects the reality of one-and-done graduate transfers being better sixth-men than primary ball handlers. Yes, Jim Christian has the backcourt on lock.

But the other positions? He’s yet to develop a standout player. It never felt like we saw the improvement we hoped for from Jairus Hamilton (more on him later), and Steffon Mitchell, whom I love dearly, hasn’t made an offensive leap in his three years on the Heights (though he started to show more as this season wound down). The big men have also never shown much: Luka Kraljevic and Johncarlos Reyes looked shambolic on defense at times. Nik Popovic appeared ready to buck that trend until his senior year was derailed by back spasms. Are there any frontcourt players who joined the Eagles in Christians tenure who have surpassed our expectations? None come to mind.

Recruiting and Transfers

Which brings us to the last part of this thesis: recruiting and transfers, with an emphasis on the latter. Going into this week, the goal of keeping the 2020 roster together was one of the more convincing arguments for keeping Jim Christian. A lineup that likely would have featured Jairus Hamilton, Steffon Mitchell, Wynston Tabbs, Jay Heath, and Demarr Langford, with CJ Felder, Julian Rishwain, and Makai Ahston-Langford off the bench, would probably be the most talented and deep teamJim Christian had worked with. At the least, it’s on par with 2017-18 (with Teddy Hawkins healthy). Any improvement from Luka Kraljevic or a serviceable a grad-transfer center would unquestionably push it to the top. But Jairus’ departure leaves the team with a concerning and unfillable hole at the three spot in what will certainly be an improved ACC, and the depth then looks little better than this year’s.

Transfers have screwed Jim over a lot, ruining his ability to cultivate that aforementioned culture and, more tangibly, squashing bench depth. The attrition rates of Christian’s first two years as the Eagle’s Head Coach were unprecedented: he lost two-thirds of his first three recruiting classes, not to mention losing Olivier Hanlan to the draft way early and the departure of Ryan Anderson. Jairus’ transfer is just another in what has become a concerning trend on the Heights. I used to think JC just had bad luck (it’s hard to predict Ty Graves getting cold feet immediately after setting foot on campus). There comes a time, however, when one should stop considering it bad luck and instead consider it an aspect of the coach and judge accordingly. And it doesn’t matter how talented the kids you bring in are if you can’t keep them around for a few years.

Yes, Boston College and Martin Jarmond should have fired Jim Christian. They probably should have done it last year.

Tune in tomorrow when I make the argument that BC made the right decision in keeping Jim Christian.