Featured Column, Men's Basketball, Column

With New Energy, Men’s Basketball has a Bright Future Ahead

On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians hosted the Chicago Cubs in the first game of the World Series. When you get past the whole “this is the biggest award these baseball players can get in their lifetimes” thing, you get to the pretty cool fact that no matter who wins, this will be an historic World Series. The last time the Tribe won it all was back in 1948. And you need to look back even farther to find the Cubs’ last World Series victory—to 1908, the year the 46th star was added to the American flag, the sacrifice fly was adopted, and my great-great-grandfather Cornelius Carmody placed No. 25 out of 64 in a poll of the most popular D.C.-area grocers. Entire generations of fans of both teams have grown up without ever seeing a World Series. In Chicago’s case, fans have literally lived and died by the Cubs without ever getting the satisfaction of a World Series victory.

This phenomenon is not limited to just the Indians and the Cubs. There are plenty of examples of professional and college teams struggling for years and years without any real success. I, for example, have never seen a Washington team win a major sports championship—unless you count the Kastles, D.C.’s World Team Tennis program, world champs in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Since most people have never even heard of World Team Tennis and therefore wouldn’t count that, then I can confidently say that I fully understand the struggle of Indians and Cubs fans.

And odds are, if you’re reading this, you can too. It isn’t exactly a secret that Boston College football and men’s basketball struggled last year, with losses in every single conference game. Sure, hockey gave students, alumni, and fans a shining beacon of hope for most of the season—but neither team claimed the ultimate prize, an NCAA championship trophy. Birdball exceeded its expectations, but didn’t give fans any hardware to celebrate. And in most of the country, hockey is secondary, an afterthought. The same goes for college baseball in Boston.

Football and basketball, though? Those are the most popular college sports throughout most of the United States—and BC was just plain bad in each. To put it mildly, fans didn’t have a ton to celebrate last year.

And so football season rolled around this year, and fans hoped that the Eagles would break the ACC streak. But Georgia Tech eluded BC. And then Virginia Tech throttled BC. And it didn’t take long for fans to resign themselves to the potential of another wasted season for the Eagles. Just last weekend, BC dropped its best remaining chance of winning an ACC game when it lost to Syracuse. Now, with the remaining ACC games against North Carolina State, Louisville, Florida State, and Wake Forest, it seems pretty unlikely that football is going to break the conference loss streak. After all, all of these teams have winning records, and Louisville and Florida State are ranked No. 5 and No. 12, respectively.

What about men’s basketball, though? Should fans expect another dismal season from Jim Christian’s squad? After all, the last memory most people have of BC men’s basketball is Dennis Clifford tearfully saying that he will miss going out to eat most of all. That isn’t exactly the best way to remember the team, people, and BC was ridiculed for it.

Fortunately for all BC fans, men’s basketball is not going to go the same way as football this year. In fact, I expect that it will be the complete opposite.

Football isn’t good now, and I’m concerned about its future. Given the current state of recruiting, it doesn’t look like the Eagles will snag any top prospects any time soon. Meanwhile, other teams in the ACC are transforming into powerful programs, leaving BC by the wayside. The Eagles haven’t always been a bad team—even as recently as the mid-2000s, they were great and brought in talents like Matt Ryan and Luke Kuechly, who developed well even if they weren’t highly ranked—but now they are sinking into a rut that will be tough to escape. And with Patrick Towles departing at the end of the year, the Eagles will play a new quarterback, whether it be Anthony Brown or Darius Wade. The defense will also lose such key players as Truman Gutapfel, John Johnson, and Matt Milano. It may be tough to determine when the rebuilding process will end.

Men’s basketball, meanwhile, is on a very different path. BC basketball has never been a national threat, but it uses the talent it has to create success. What’s more, the Eagles were more competitive in conference play on the hardwood than the gridiron last year. With the right adjustments, BC will enjoy some success in the ACC this season and beyond.

This may seem weird—after all, more than half of the team is completely new to the program. Four freshmen and three transfers have joined what remains of last year’s roster after its two leading scorers, Clifford and Eli Carter, graduated. Several other promising players, like Matt Milon, opted to transfer to different schools. You might think that basketball would face the same struggles as football when it comes to recruiting. But the Eagles are used to making the most of the talent they have on their roster—they’ve been doing it since before they joined the ACC.

It would be easy to think that an almost completely new roster would have growing pains and struggle this season. But even though the team doesn’t have a lot of experience together, the atmosphere is already much better than last year. Open practices have been going on for about a month now, even though the season opener isn’t until Nov. 11. And Christian has loved what he’s seen from his team—the hard work, the grit, and the dedication to building chemistry before the season officially starts. His players are happy and confident together.

“I think our team is fitting really well together,” he told BCEagles.com earlier this month. He also praised his players’ coachability. This team wants to improve, and it is listening to coaches and making the right adjustments to maximize its potential.

It’s easy to talk about improving and meeting potential before the season actually starts. What fans want are answers. They want to know what kind of potential this team actually has. Well, if you look at the roster, the Eagles are certainly a talented team. You can’t make it to Division I without being talented, though. So BC has to find a way to distinguish itself from its competitors.

The Eagles are an undersized team this year. Johncarlos Reyes is 6-foot-10, and Nik Popovic stands one inch taller. They are the tallest members of the team, but neither has a lot of experience playing at the college level, and neither will start this year. Without an established threat at center—and without centers and forwards who will be significantly taller than the competition—the Eagles cannot rely on an inside presence to carry their offense. What’s more, while there are several forwards, Reyes is the only player listed as a center on the roster itself. A.J. Turner, a forward, will provide a strong presence on the court this year. Connar Tava and Mo Jeffers, two transfers to BC this year, will probably play on the inside. As older players on a very young team, they will step up and provide leadership and guidance for teammates.  

The Eagles are looking a lot better in the guard position. Freshman Ky Bowman has looked confident at the point guard position so far in the preseason. It is likely that his classmate Ty Graves will develop into a more serious threat as the season goes on and will factor heavily into the game in future years. Jerome Robinson is returning for his sophomore season, and will benefit from having Bowman running the point and opening up the offense. They might not have been the highest-ranked, most elite recruits, but they’d be high-profile targets in free agency today. Besides, you can’t rely on outside shooting to win all the time—unless you want to blow a 3-1 lead to LeBron in the Finals, that is.

All of this means that BC will almost certainly struggle through another tough season if it tries to live and die by a set offense. Slowing everything down and relying almost exclusively on guards will not result in any sort of success for the Eagles.

After considering the team’s talent, it’s easy to see what the Eagles’ method should be this season. BC has the potential to run its opponents ragged. Christian has already praised his team’s speed.

“We have a lot of fast, athletic guys,” he said. “It’s a strength and it’s something that we have to play towards.”

The best way to effectively use speed is to prioritize the transition offense. If the Eagles can play shutdown defense and force their opponents into stupid mistakes, they can beat their opponents down the court and make transition points a huge part of their success. Of course, this means more than just shutdown defense by their own basket. Implementing a stranglehold of a press will also go a long way in shutting other teams down and providing fast-break opportunities for BC.

Think about VCU. Under former head coach Shaka Smart, the Rams rode the havoc defense all the way to the Final Four in 2011. VCU didn’t do anything radical or new. It just pressured the hell out of its opponents with a stifling full-court press. When the opponents inevitably turned the ball over, the Rams capitalized on the mistakes with transition points. Like BC, VCU never had the best players in the country, but it had the best strategy. Christian can do that, too.

This strategy will only work if BC is the fittest team on the court every single game. The Eagles can’t rely on a set offense, so they need to emphasize the transition. But if they run out of steam halfway through games, they can’t succeed. Fitness will have to be a huge component this year. It can make or break games for BC.

It isn’t long now until the basketball season starts. Next Thursday, the Eagles play an exhibition game against Stonehill College. A week and a day after BC takes on the Skyhawks, its regular season will officially begin when it plays Nicholls State. The Eagles don’t start conference play until the new year—they will face Syracuse on Jan. 1 to kick off the ACC slate—but the first part of the season will be a good indicator of how BC will manage the tougher stretch of the schedule. It can also help boost the team’s confidence and build more chemistry.

Yes, football and men’s basketball struggled last year. Yes, it looks increasingly likely that football will go winless in the conference again this year. But things are definitely looking up for men’s basketball. With a happier, more confident attitude surrounding the team, Christian’s squad is ready to prove that it will break the conference curse and bring success back to Conte Forum.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

October 26, 2016